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Children's nightmares and night terrors

Learn about dreams that upset or frighten your child, what causes them, prevention and how to help your child.

Nightmares in children

Your child will wake up during a nightmare but stay asleep during a sleep or night terror.

Nightmares and night terrors are common. Most children will grow out of them. They don't cause any long-term psychological harm to your child.

What nightmares are

Nightmares are dreams that upset or frighten your child. They will wake up and be distressed. Your child will remember what happened in the dream when they wake.

Some children have nightmares now and again. Others have them frequently.

When children get nightmares

Nightmares are common in children aged between 6 and 10 years old, but younger and older children also have them. Toddlers might have a nightmare about being lost or separated from their parents.

Possible nightmare causes

The nightmares may be linked to something that happened during the day or a worry or fear your child has.

Worries and fears can include starting pre-school, a death in the family or fear of monsters. Some might be linked to something that has happened to a child, like getting lost or a trip to a doctor.

Older children might have a nightmare after a scary film or story, or after something frightening that happened to them.

Nightmares generally happen during the last few hours of sleep. When they wake, your child will usually tell you about the dream. They may think that the dream was real.

As your child gains confidence in dealing with problems, they tend to have fewer nightmares.

Dealing with nightmares

Reassure them

When your child wakes up from a nightmare, hold and comfort them. Sit beside them and tell them you will be nearby if they need you.

Don't get into bed

Avoid getting in the bed beside them as this may create a sleep association. A sleep association is when your child depends on something like a parent being with them to fall asleep. Instead, leave both your and your child’s bedroom doors open so they know you are near.

Use a dim light if needed

If your child wants to have a light left on in their room, put it on the lowest setting.

Let your child have a security object like a teddy bear in the bed. This can help them feel more relaxed. Do not have toys or other items in a baby or toddler's bed that could suffocate them.

Discuss it the next day

Try to talk to your child about the nightmare to see if you can figure out what the cause might be. This is important if your child starts having nightmares frequently.

Preventing nightmares

To try to prevent nightmares:

  • encourage your child to talk to you about their fears or worries during the day
  • make sure the TV programmes or videos your child watches are appropriate for their age - avoid scary content before bedtime
  • avoid giving your child drinks that contain caffeine or sugar as they can cause disrupted sleep
  • make sure your child is getting enough sleep - this can help reduce the frequency and intensity of nightmares

When to get help for your child

Talk to your GP or public health nurse if your child’s nightmares are very disturbing or keep happening.

Night or sleep terrors

Your child will be deeply asleep and seem very agitated if they are having a night or sleep terror. This can be distressing for parents.

Your child won't wake up during a night terror and will have no memory of it.

Night terrors can last from 5 minutes to 30 minutes and have no effect on your child. They happen in the deepest part of sleep and usually within 1 to 2 hours of going to sleep.

What to do

During a night terror

  • Do not wake your child - this may lead to more agitation.
  • Keep your child safe from injury - they may move around.

After a night terror

Your child will probably have no memory of the night terror the next day.

It’s best not to talk to them about it as this may cause them more worry. It may help to have a general chat with your child to make sure there is nothing worrying them.

Preventing night terrors

Night terrors are more likely to happen if your child is not getting enough sleep.

Causes could include:

  • a change in your child’s routine - for example, when they give up a nap or start pre-school
  • an irregular sleep schedule (going to bed and getting up at different times each day)
  • sleeping somewhere different, like a grandparent's home, or noisy
  • a fever or illness
  • a full bladder
  • certain medications
  • stress
  • another sleep disorder like snoring or sleep apnea

Make sure your child is getting enough sleep and has a regular sleep routine.

Don't give your child caffeinated drinks. These can cause disrupted sleep, which can lead to sleep terrors.

Treatment

Most children will grow out of night terrors without needing any treatment.

Talk to your GP if your child is having night terrors a few times every night or most nights.

Page last reviewed: 26/03/2019
Next review due: 26/03/2022