Nightmares or night terrors?

Recently, my son began having nightmares as well as night terrors, which I’ve since discovered are two completely different issues. 

Probably once a week, sometimes two, he wakes up with a piercing scream during the night. When I go in to comfort him, he has already bolted out of bed and made his way to the bedroom door or toward the corner of his room to get closer to his night light. Sweating, heart thumping fast, and with a look of complete bewilderment on his face, it is utterly heartbreaking to see him in such a confused, panicked state.  

I do what any mother would do in that moment: I scoop him up in my arms and gently rock him or hold him tight, telling him everything will be all right and that there is nothing to be frightened about. “It’s just a bad dream,” I say, while wiping the tears from his cheeks.

Of course, he doesn’t know that. Toddlers have very active imaginations and have a difficult time distinguishing between fantasy and reality. Decoding his bad dreams is made harder by his gibberish.  

The other night he kept muttering “cow” over and over. So he was obviously dreaming about a cow. I often read him the classic story “Goodnight Moon” by Margaret Wise Brown before bed, which he seems to love, and so the first thing I thought of was the line “the picture of a cow jumping over the moon,” which he always points to when I read the book. Is this what scared him that night? Possibly.

Or, perhaps he saw a cow on TV and didn’t like the looks of it. He is also very consumed by shadows and looks toward the closet a lot lately, so I gather he thinks there may be hidden monsters (or worse, duppies); or, maybe those intense Cayman rainstorms jolt him out of his slumber. Whatever it is, I would classify these episodes as classic nightmares: He wakes up crying and afraid, usually in the second half of the night during REM sleep (Rapid Eye Movement), when dreaming is most intense, and then has trouble falling back asleep. 

In fact, after he has calmed down, it is like a switch has been turned on and he ends up getting some sort of insomnia or extra energy afterward. He simply cannot settle back down and wants to play and jump on me and talk about his day – for hours at a time! Perhaps it’s just a very clever stall tactic to keep me in the room. Even on those rare occasions that we do bring him into our bed, he can’t fall asleep, so it’s a lose-lose situation as nobody gets any sleep in the house. 

However, a couple of other times, he seemed inconsolable at night. And by that, I mean when my husband or I would pick him up after a nighttime fright, he would continue to cry and flail – even pushing us away – and it went on for a good 30 minutes or more until we took him outside to get some fresh air and a change of atmosphere to calm him down. At first I thought it might be a tantrum because his eyes were wide open but he wasn’t really looking at us or recognizing us. But then after the second episode, it was obvious he was unaware of what he was doing; and the next day he woke up happy as a clam. It was a classic night terror. 

In fact, experts say that night terrors, which are actually sleep disorders, take place during the deepest stages of sleep, which usually occur early in the night, often before parents’ bedtime. Night terrors can last up to 45 minutes but can be as short as a few minutes. Many children can fall right back asleep afterward as they were not really awake, and will not remember having the terror the next day. Night terrors, for this reason alone, can be harder on the parent than the child as it leaves a parent feeling helpless. After all, my job as a mother is to console my son and protect him.  

Both nightmares and night terrors are common occurrences in toddlers and preschoolers who have active imaginations and are learning new experiences every day. Although fear of the dark and monsters can be the cause, over-tiredness, too much stimulation before bed, and being under stress are also main culprits of nighttime fears.

After racking my brain about what could be causing my son stress after months of blissful 11-hour uninterrupted nights of sleep (with a regular routine that hasn’t changed much by day or night), I have begun limiting his iPad use during the day. But the other night as I was cleaning up after dinner, my husband flicked on the TV and the action movie “300” was playing.

By the time I got into the living room to turn it off, it was too late. My son, who had at that point been playing with his cars nearby, stood there entranced as a muscular warrior was stabbed to death with a giant bloody sword. Oops. Although he didn’t have a nightmare that night, I scolded my husband for even letting him see it, especially before bedtime! 

My parents were recently visiting for the holidays and upon witnessing what’s happening at home, my mom declared she was having “flashbacks” of me as a baby. She says my eldest brother and I were very difficult sleepers, always scared of the dark (and monsters), and nightmare-prone. After years of wearing them down, my parents finally gave in and allowed me to fall asleep on the couch; my dad lifted me upstairs and plunked me in my bed at a later hour.  

The truth is, to this day I have very vivid dreams and nightmares. Not often, mind you. Somehow I find it comforting to think my son’s nighttime issues are purely genetic – an inherited trait rather than any negligent behavior I may be guilty of as a mom. 

Nightmares: tips for parents   

If your child cries for you, experts say go to your child as quickly as possible and offer physical reassurance. Stay with your child for a short period of time following the nightmare, but encourage your child to go back to sleep in his or her own bed (easier said than done, I know, but excessive attention or pampering will draw it all out, from my experience). If your child has an attachment to a specific soft toy or blanket, make sure it is tucked in with him. 

Tell your child that you are there and that everything will be OK. Encourage your child to tell you about the dream, even if you don’t understand what he’s saying – if not after the fact, then the next day. It may help you determine if there is an underlying theme to the nightmares and get to the source of any stresses during the day. It could be as simple as too many shadows in the room, which is an easy fix. 

Keep the door open and make sure there is a night light that is not overly bright and not too dim either. Be prepared that if you bring your child into your bed, you could create bad habits, especially if you are not comfortable with your child sharing your bed in the long run. 

Night terrors: tips for parents   

Try to stay calm, knowing that your child is not awake, nor will he remember it the next day. 

Try not to wake your child up, but make sure he can’t harm himself during his thrashing around. You may have to restrain him gently if he tries to get out of bed. Your child will most likely sleep quietly after the night terror ends.  

Be sure to tell your child’s caregiver or babysitter so they know how to handle it if happens on their clock.   

To help prevent both nightmares and night terrors, make sure your child is getting enough sleep and that the bedtime routine is consistent and peaceful: no electronics an hour before bedtime, a warm bubble bath, a story or two, and dim lights and voices can help ward off nightmares. The room should also be a comfortable temperature – not too cold and not too hot.  

If the nightmares or night terrors persist or increase in frequency, and your child is extremely afraid of going to bed, talk to his doctor. It may help to keep a sleep diary for a few weeks and make note of any changes in your child’s life which may affect him unknowingly. Various psychological techniques can be employed to help with nighttime fears, s
uch as desensitization and relaxation strategies.  

Above all else, find comfort in the fact that sleep problems at this age are very common and in most cases will lessen as they get older; and with some patience, time, and a lot of love, you and your doctor can help your child beat them. 


Providing comfort as quickly as possible after a nightmare reassures your child.


Many young children fear the dark, as well as hidden monsters at night.
Getty Images/Hemera


Comments are closed.