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Night terrors and nightmares in children.. how do you tell the difference? That is today’s topic. Click the video below to watch:View Transcript
Dana Obleman: Hi. I’m Dana. Welcome to this week’s video. Today, I want to talk about “Night terrors.” I want to get really clear about what exactly a night terror is, because it’s different than a nightmare. A lot of people confuse the two and intermingle them and call them the same thing. They’re really not. They’re very, very different.
Night terrors tend to occur in the portion of our sleep when we are in deep sleep. REM sleep is really where we do the majority of our nighttime dreaming. But when night terrors occur, the child tends to be in deep sleep.
It’s almost as if they’re stuck between one sleep cycle and the next or transitioning from deep sleep into REM, and they tend to scream out, if they’re having a true night terror. They can last for seconds. It can last up to a half an hour, 45 minutes. It really varies. There’s a few things to watch for if you suspect your child is having night terrors.
Often they don’t communicate with you. It’s almost like you feel like the lights are on, but nobody’s home. That sort of feeling. You might ask them questions. They may respond, but usually what they say doesn’t make sense with the question you’ve asked, or they’re just babbling nonsense or they’re incoherent.
Often if they do say anything, they’ll say that someone’s chasing them or they have to get away. When you’re watching it, it’s very upsetting, because they do look distressed. It’s very terrifying as a parent to watch unless you know what’s happening. The majority of the time, the child will not remember the experience in the morning.
If they do, they’ll have a vague sense about they might have been running away from something. They really won’t be able to articulate clearly what happened in the night. There’s no point in trying to force them to. That won’t help matters at all. What will help though, is making sure your child is not overtired.
Studies show that the more overtired a child is, the more likely they are to experience a night terror in the early part of their nighttime sleep. It usually happens somewhere before midnight, that this episode occurs. Obviously, you want to keep them safe, make sure they don’t fall out of bed or get up and start walking around. Just be calm and let it pass. It will pass.
There’s no point in trying to shake them out of it or wake them up. Just let it pass. The good news is that, for most children, they outgrow it. Every time I say that, I get an email from somebody saying that they’re an adult, and they still have night terrors. I’m not saying that no adult ever has a night terror. Some do. It’s fairly rare. Most children do outgrow night terrors.
There is some suggestion that it might be hereditary. If you had them, perhaps your child will. It’s not conclusive yet, but there is a little bit of speculation around that. Also, if you slept walked, if you were a sleepwalker as a child, that that might explain why your child’s having night terrors. There might be some link there.
A nightmare, obviously, is completely different in that it happens during REM sleep, which is when we do the majority of our nighttime dreaming. It’s just basically the brain’s way of organizing information. Sometimes the brain does it in a lovely way and you have a great dream. Sometimes the brain does it in a scary way and it turns into a bad dream.
Children who are having a nightmare will often be able to communicate with you. They’ll be able to articulate what the dream was about. They will respond to your questions. They will be scared because bad dreams are not fun. My advice is just to calmly reassure them. Tell them everyone has them bad dreams. They’re completely normal.
It’s just the brain’s way of processing information and that when they go back to sleep, suggest they think about something pleasant that might be the next dream that they have. One thing you want to watch out for, though, is to not change too much if your child does have a nightmare.
For example, a popular thing is that a parent will climb into bed with the child or bring the child into their bed. If your child really enjoys that, you might find that there’s a nightmare happening every single night because it’s getting a bit of a reward. Just be really cautious around that.
I hope that clears up a little bit of confusion about the difference between the two, and gives you some tips for dealing with it. Thanks so much for watching. Sleep well.
Transcription by CastingWords
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