It is quite common for young children to experience nightmares and other types of sleep disturbances. It is very similar to what occurs with adults, their subconscious mind is processing their experiences and feelings and dreams (and nightmares) are the result. 

Toddlers are just beginning to take in the broader world outside the safety of their home and may see things that frighten them, things that may not even occur to adults as potentially scary or upsetting. They are coming to understand how big the world is, and although their point of view is still very egocentric, they are beginning to realize how little control they have over things.

Why do nightmares and night terrors occur?

Parents often assume that their child has had a sleep disturbance because they have been exposed to media that isn’t age appropriate or perhaps to an older child’s play that was too rough or violent. 

While this is a possible cause of nightmares or sleep disturbances it is only one possible cause. It is just as likely or even more so that the child has seen something that frightened them but that we perceive to be quite normal. 

Possible causes of nightmares

  • Maybe they saw an adult’s reaction to something that scared them, like a mouse on a subway platform.
  • Perhaps they saw something that was confusing but felt scary, like a mounted deer head at a restaurant.
  • Maybe they heard a noise like a loud ambulance siren and were told something that made them nervous, like it was because someone was sick or hurt. 
  • Perhaps it was something as simple as being coerced into sharing a cherished toy at school or getting called on when they didn’t know the answer. 

What’s the difference between nightmares and night terrors?


Nightmares, which typically occur later in the night while in lighter REM sleep, are essentially scary dreams and will usually wake the sleeping child up to some degree. The child may or may not remember some details of the dream or nightmare. These occur occasionally for most children. 

Night terrors

With a night terror, which occurs during a deeper sleep state, children usually don’t recall the disturbance at all. A child experiencing a night terror can sometimes appear to be awake, they may be crying, sitting bolt upright, and have their eyes open, and sometimes they may even get up and walk or run around. 

Night terrors are often more dramatic, characterized by sweating, faster breathing, and acting upset or scared and can be alarming to parents who witness them. They are more rare than nightmares, occurring in only 5-30% of children, age and source depending, and are most often seen in young children, ages 1.5-7 according to the NIH. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, they are also likely hereditary.

How to help kids with nightmares and night terrors

Odds are, your child will experience nightmares a few times during early childhood. Whatever the cause, nightmares and night terrors are developmentally appropriate and there are right and wrong ways to handle them.

For children who experience occasional nightmares: 

  • Reassurance is often the most effective approach. Explain that they are ok and it was just a dream. 
  • Parents should discuss fears and other triggers with their children out of the context of bedtime, so maybe while on a walk outside. But don’t over do it! Too much reassurance can have the opposite effect by drawing too much attention or focus to the thing that is scary. 
  • During the bedtime routine keep things consistent, fun, and light. 

If your child has just had a nightmare: 

  • After providing reassurance, offer to leave their door open for the rest of the night. 
  • Give them a security item like a lovey or favorite blanket to hold onto while they sleep. 
  • Do not bring them into your bed, unless that is where they usually sleep. 
  • Instead, encourage them to stay in their own bed. You can offer to come back in to check on them in a few minutes if they seem reluctant to go back to sleep. 
  • Do not spend a lot of time proving there is no monster or scary thing in their room, it has the opposite effect, lending credence to the fear.

When a child is having a night terror: 

  • Try to guide them back to sleep without waking them up. 
  • Avoid holding or restraining them, but keep an eye to make sure they don’t accidentally hurt themselves by falling down stairs or bumping into something. 
  • If your child has had one or more recent night terror incidents, try to get them to bed a bit earlier and as part of a consistent bedtime routine. There is some research that suggests these can be triggered by being overtired.

If your child’s nightmares or night terrors are happening with frequency or lasting a long time, for more than 30 minutes, talk to your pediatrician. Share any hunches you have regarding possible root causes, like family stress, recent transitions, separation issues at school, etc. Together, you and your child’s doctor can work out a plan to help them with their night terrors.

Watching your child deal with nightmares and night terrors can be unsettling or even upsetting. But remember, they are looking to you for reassurance and a sense of safety. The best advice is to be calm, steady, and consistent, letting your child know that they are safe. You got this!

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