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Nightmare and night terrors: What to do when your child has them

It can be so distressing hearing your little one screaming or crying in the middle of the night because of a night terror or nightmare, and not knowing what to do about them. There is a difference between a night terror and nightmare, and each can be treated a bit differently.


Nightmares are scary dreams that occur in all ages, but are very common in children, especially those between the ages of three and six. Nightmares usually happen later in the night and can cause strong feelings of fear, anxiety or distress with children waking up from them, and being scared to go back to sleep.

They might happen for no known reason, or they might be based on things your child has seen or heard that have made them scared, for example a fairytale with a wicked person, or a story about snakes.

What to do

Comfort and reassure your child and understand and acknowledge how they are feeling. Instead of saying “Don’t be silly – it was just a dream”, you could say “I understand how scary it must be to dream of a big snake”.

Leave the bedroom door open for them as it might help them feel safer or give a toy or security blanket for comfort.

Try to encourage your child to go back to sleep in their own bed, even if you have to lie with them until they fall asleep. At bedtime, avoid stories that might trigger fear, and keep things positive by talking about happy things.

If your child’s nightmares become worse, or they start interfering with their daily activities and your child is always scared to go to bed, then chat to your healthcare professional.

Night terrors

Night terrors happen when your child is still asleep and involve kicking, screaming, thrashing, shouting or panicking, and sometimes sleepwalking. They are common in children between three and eight, though they can continue through the teenage years. They usually take place in the early part of the sleep cycle. They can last for up to 15 minutes or longer and generally end in deep sleep.

While they might seem scary, night terrors do not hurt your child, and will not respond when you try to comfort them. Your child also will not remember a night terror in the morning.


A night terror can be triggered by tiredness and not getting enough good sleep. Sickness, fever and some medications can also cause them, along with a family history of night terrors.

What to do

Do not wake up your child or shake or shout at them to help them get out of the terror. You can make soothing comments and hold them.
Ensure your child is safe from injury, and if they are out of bed, try to guide them back in.
Try to get into a good and regular bedtime routine.
If your child has regular terrors, episodes that last more than 20 minutes and any other symptoms such as fatigue and malaise, chat to your healthcare professional.

Sources: Consulté le 15/06/2021

Standford Children Health : Nightmare and night terrors Consulté le 15/06/2021

Original article: Consulté le 15/06/2021


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