By: Lainie Harris, Penfield Children’s Center

When children are between the ages of 3-12 years old, they may begin to experience nightmares or night terrors. While this is a common phenomenon, it can still be frightening or worrisome. Helping your child get through nightmares or night terrors can seem daunting, but with a bit of guidance, they can become manageable.

Nightmares are just scary dreams.

Children experience nightmares very late in the sleep cycle, often in the early morning hours. A child will remember the dream and why it was scary, and may experience the same dream on multiple nights.

Night terrors tend to run in families.

Night terrors are characterized by frequent recurrent episodes of intense crying and fear during sleep, with difficulty rousing the child. Night terrors often occur about 90 minutes into the sleep cycle. Different from nightmares, most children do not recall an actual dream after a night terror episode. Children may be confused and unresponsive, and they usually do not remember the episode the next morning.

The Mayo Clinic says that night terrors can include, but are not limited to:

  • Sitting up in bed
  • Screaming or shouting, kicking and thrashing
  • Sweating, breathing heavily and having a racing pulse
  • Difficulty waking the child
  • A child becoming inconsolable

Because children aren’t awake during a night terror, parents can’t comfort or console them – making the episodes alarming for both child and parent.

It is estimated that 1%-6% of children experience night terrors.

 Causes of night terrors

  • Stressful life events
  • Fever
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Medications that affect the central nervous system (the brain)
  • Recent anesthesia given for surgery

Children usually outgrow night terrors by adolescence.

 Most often, night terrors and nightmares will become less frequent and stop as your child ages. According to, “Nightmares and night terrors in children are usually not caused by mental or physical illness. Often nightmares happen after a stressful physical or emotional event.”

If nightmares or night terrors keep happening and disturb your child’s sleep, they can affect your child’s ability to function during the day.

 It is important to do everything in your power to make your child feel safe. Here are some tips to help your child feel secure and attain better sleep.

  • Keep up a bedtime routine
  • Incorporate pleasant things like reading or music
  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep (fatigue may contribute to night terrors)
  • Keep tabs on your child’s stress or anxiety levels and figure out what’s bothering him/her

What are some methods you use to ward off bad dreams?


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