Nightmares and night terrors

Some children have nightmares. These are frightening dreams that they may be able to describe afterwards. Having nightmares once in a while is normal. They usually happen in the second half of the night.

A nightmare can wake your child up. She might be scared and need to be cuddled and comforted by you. She may have trouble getting back to sleep.

If your toddler is having a lot of nightmares, it might be because she is concerned about:

  • something that has scared or hurt her
  • a big change (e.g., new child care, new home, a baby brother or sister)

Talk about her fears in the daytime, when everyone is awake and rested.

Talk to your health care provider if your child is having a lot of trouble sleeping, or if it’s affecting your child’s health or your family life.

Night terrors (sleep terrors) are different. These are periods of screaming and moving about during a child’s sleep at night. Her eyes are open and she seems to be awake, but she isn’t.

  • Night terrors usually happen in the first part of the night, about 1–4 hours after falling asleep.
  • They often happen at the same time each night. They usually only last a few minutes.
  • A child may not be aware of anyone around her and usually doesn’t remember the night terror. For this reason, they may be much more upsetting to parents than to the child.
  • A night terror may last longer if you try to comfort and hold your child while it’s happening. Make sure she’s safe and don’t try to wake her.
  • If your child is having night terrors at the same time each night, you can try waking her 10–15 minutes before that time. Doing this for a few weeks may break the cycle.
  • Night terrors usually peak at about 2 years old. They are more common in boys.
  • If you have questions or concerns, talk to your public health nurse or health care provider, or call Health Link toll-free in Alberta at 811.
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