What’s the difference between nightmares and night terrors

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Has your little one been waking up with nightmares lately? It breaks your heart to see them distressed doesn’t it? I know we experienced many years of night terrors with Jacob!  What’s the difference between nightmares and night terrors? What is the cause and how do you resolve this issue?

Firstly, let’s define REM and non REM sleep…

REM Sleep

REM sleep is characterised by “rapid eye movement” and occurs in cycles during the night. Dreams occur during REM sleep. Therefore, so do nightmares.

According to www.medicalnewstoday.com, “people enter REM sleep within the first 90 minutes of falling asleep and, as the sleep cycle repeats throughout the night, REM sleep occurs several times nightly. It accounts for approximately 20 to 25 percent of an adult’s sleep cycle, and over 50 percent of an infant’s sleep cycle. Most dreams occur during REM sleep, and it is thought to play a role in learning, memory, and mood.”

During REM sleep you have a faster pulse and breathing. You experience more eye movement when the eyelids are shut. REM is associated with learning new information and your brain is using as much energy as when you’re awake.

Non-REM Sleep

Non-REM sleep or non rapid eye movement sleep accounts for the first 3 stages of sleep.  During each stage there are differing degrees of activity in your brain. REM sleep is considered the 4th stage. Most sleep is non-REM sleep accounting for as much as 80% of your daily zzzzs.  You can still experience dreams during non- REM sleep (usually during stage 3) but your dreams will not be as vivid or memorable as during REM sleep.

What’s a nightmare?

So a nightmare usually happens during your REM sleep. A nightmare is bad dream or a dream that evokes strong emotion such as fear or anxiety. According to psychologytoday.com a nightmare will often occur in the latter part of the night, awakening the sleeper who will often recall the bad dream. A nightmare usually comes from an activity that has happened during the day.

Nightmares can happen to anyone but it does seem that they happen more often in children. In fact, nightmares are very common during the preschool years. Why? Because nightmares are part of normal development of the brain.  They can be similar to some sleep regressions in babies where cognitive development can play a part in arousing your baby from sleep.

During the pre-school years your child’s imagination is beginning to develop and they become far more acutely aware of what is a real threat to them or can cause them to be scared. Perhaps a big dog scared them in a park or they caught a glimpse of something terrible on the news. Their little mind is trying to process all of this new information. Also a toddler might be more scared of imaginary creatures such as monsters, ghosts or pirates. Older children tend to have more realistic fears such as a fear of the dark, a burglar or a thunder storm.

What’s a night terror?

A night terror is different to a nightmare and most often happens in children.

A child may scream during a night terror, can have their eyes open or shut, can breathe rapidly and have a racing heart but will not be fully awake. They will have no memory of the night terror in the morning. Sometimes sleepwalking can form part of the night terror.  It’s important not to wake your child if they’re having a night terror as this can make them confused and disoriented.

Night terrors typically happen before midnight and occur when the child is “stuck” between a deep and light sleep stage. Basically, their body is “awake” but their mind isn’t.

Jacob’s night terrors started when he was about 3 years old and would happen intermittently.  We would keep the baby monitor in his bedroom and the receiver in our living room because he’d usually have the night terror between 9.30pm and 10.30pm. We would comfort Jacob by patting his back and then settling him back down in his bed.  He would have no recollection of the night terror in the morning.

Night terrors are more rare than nightmares and usually resolve by adolescence.

Why do they happen?

Most young children experience nightmares, with an estimated 10 percent to 50 percent between the ages of 5 and 12 years having nightmares severe enough to disturb their parents, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM).

Children can experience nightmares as a result of something that has happened to them during the day such as seeing a scary image. It could also stem from feeling anxious about something that is about to happen such as a hospital stay or the first day of school. Sometimes it might be due to to the loss of a family member or a pet. Maybe their imagination gets the better of them and they visualise scary animals or are scared of the dark? The reasons are many and varied.

Two common causes of night terrors are fever and not enough good quality sleep. Hopefully once these issues resolve, your child will not have any more night terrors. They can run in the family and occur in adults but are far less common than children.

How to prevent them

Practicing good sleep hygiene is important. This means taking time to wind down before bed,  going to bed at a regular time each night and waking up at a similar time each day. All of these habits will help get your body on a good sleep cycle. Parents can read more about Looking After Yourself in our blog.

Jacob already had a good bed time routine but night terrors and sleepwalking run in my family.  We found that giving Jacob his bottle of milk before his bath rather than just before bed helped.  Once Jacob stopped drinking milk at night the night terrors stopped completely around 5 years of age.  I’m not sure whether this was a coincidence or not.

Talking about bad dreams with your child will help them to put them in perspective and reduce anxiety. It’s a good idea to pass on tools to your child to help them overcome their fears and set up good sleep habits for life.

Giving your child tools to cope with nightmares

Sometimes kids have real fears that need to be addressed. All these things are quite normal and will pass in due course. We all want to reach out to our kids in times of need. If your child is calling for you often during the night or ending up in your bed every night because they are scared, then something needs to be addressed. It’s time to give them the tools they need to cope.

Helpful tips for dealing with nightmares:

– give them role models such as reading about kids who are able to work through and conquer their fears. Find books on this issue such as Can’t You Sleep Little Bear by Martin Waddell.
-talk about positive thinking and being brave.
-play some games in the dark.
-iPads and other devices are a no no before bed too.
-give them a comforting toy or security object to help relax them before bed and comfort them during the night.
-try a night light in the hall way or leave a light on in the bathroom.
-always go to them and comfort them.
-cuddle and reassure your child.
-they need to know that you understand their fear and that you are listening to them.

More ideas to help:

-if your child is anxious at bed time it is better for you to stay in his room with him or her, rather than allowing your child to walk in and out of the bedroom.
-tell your child that you will check on him every 10 minutes or so (do this until he goes to sleep. Just knowing that you will be back soon, is enough for your child to relax and wind down.
-if your child is old enough, ask your child how they think it is best to deal with the situation. This helps them learn to problem solve and gain control over their fears.
-make sure bed time is relaxing and that there is ample time to wind down.

In the blink of an eye your toddler will be growing up. They’ll be heading off on exciting adventures like sleepovers and school camps where unfortunately you won’t be on hand to comfort them during the night. It is so important to try to give them the tools to cope when you won’t be able to help them out.

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