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Nightmares and night terrors

On average, we dream for two hours every night, whether we remember our dreams or not. Dreams are a psychological experience during sleep, an altered state of consciousness that has fascinated humans since the beginning of time.

Dreams can be epic adventures or wonderful flights of fancy. But they can also change quickly into scary nightmares.

Why sleep is so important

Sleep is incredibly important for everyone, but especially for children and young people because growth hormones are secreted during sleep.  The body rests and the brain stores knowledge and makes sense of the day's events. But sleep isn't always calm and restful. Sometimes our sleep is disturbed by nightmares.

Why do we have nightmares?

We've all experienced nightmares. A horrible scene plays out before our eyes, worse than anything that has ever happened to us and we wake up in a cold sweat with a thumping heart. Nightmares are more common during periods of stress or emotional upheaval and the most common nightmares are situations that make us feel threatened.

Children often have nightmares

Small children often have nightmares and they are part of their development. When children experience changes, such as starting school, moving house or divorce they often have more nightmares. Children with colds or a fever often have nightmares.

One-year-olds sleep less well because they are going through key developmental and life stages and already have a vivid imagination. This is completely normal.

Half of all children aged three to six have nightmares, according to American research. Nightmares become less common as children grow up but one in five children aged size to twelve still have nightmares.

If your child has nightmares every night

Nightmares can happen once every so often or all the time, depending on the child. If your child often has nightmares, they might not want to go to bed and get anxious about falling asleep because they're afraid of the nightmare coming back. This is completely normal and can be caused by different factors, such as the child's imagination or their need to process the events of the day.  Three- to five-year-olds often have nightmares about monsters, trolls and ghosts. Then the nightmares become more realistic with themes like death or that someone the child knows gets hurt.

If the child gets anxious about bedtime, it is important to stick to the routine, comfort the child and make them feel safe and calm by reading a story, switching on their night light and giving them their favourite teddy. A sleep schedule can be a good solution.

How do I help my child with nightmares?

  • Calm and comfort your child and help them get back to sleep by giving them a cuddle and speaking in a calm voice. Don't make too much fuss in case you make the child think it's really something to be frightened of.
  • Help the child understand that you will keep them safe. Tell the child that their parents or other adults are close by.
  • If you're disturbed by your child in your bed tell them they can get into bed with you if they don't wake anyone else up. You can also get your child a bigger bed so you can sleep with them without waking up the other parent. Or put an extra bed or mattress by your bed or the child's bed.
  • Read stories about dealing with fear or talk about nightmares with your child. Can your child tell you what they think the nightmare is about? Try and find out if your child has seen something scary on TV or on the news.
  • Take your child's nightmares and experiences seriously. It won't help to tell your child that trolls and ghosts don't exist. At certain ages, these kinds of creatures are very real for children.
  • A night light in your child's room might help.
  • Talk about nightmares with your child the day after, if they want to. They will have fewer nightmares as they get older, although we all know that you can still have nightmares when you're an adult.  If your child suffers badly from nightmares, has them during the day and has difficulty sleeping for a long period of time you can contact your GP or paediatrician. Help is available.


Nightmares, night terrors and sleepwalking are human behaviours that fall under the parasomnia category. Nightmares are more common than night terrors.


Sleepwalking can be hereditary and is most common in five to ten year olds. It can be caused by fever, stress, lack of sleep or the child needing to go to the loo. It often occurs when the child is in deep sleep a couple of hours after they have fallen asleep.  Children can fall and hurt themselves on stairs or furniture and can even go out the front door. You can help your child when they sleepwalk by gently taking their hand or arm and leading them back to bed. It's often difficult to make contact with a sleepwalking child. Avoid waking them up. To help prevent sleepwalking, make sure your child goes to the bathroom before they go to bed.

Night terrors

Children in preschool suffer most from night terrors but they can continue as the child gets older.  These years are eventful for children, even if nothing particularly traumatic happens.

Children who suffer from night terrors scream loudly when they're asleep and seem frightened and sad. The child is confused and it can be hard to make contact with the child even though they seem to be awake. The child might be aggressive and push away the person who's trying to comfort them. Children usually go back to sleep straight away and don't remember anything the day after, unlike nightmares, where the child can take a long time to go back to sleep. Remember it's not dangerous. Night terrors usually happen during the first part of the nights early as an hour after the child has gone to sleep. Nightmares, on the other hand, usually happen later in the night.

Night terrors can be hereditary and can be triggered by the same reasons as sleepwalking.

What should I do if my child has night terrors?

Don't wake the child. Help the child go back to sleep by calmly sitting next to them. If night terrors happen about the same time every night you can carefully wake the child  a quarter of an hour before they usually suffer from night terrors so they're roused from deep sleep before the night terrors start. Some parents say that their children calm down when they take them out of bed and quickly put them in again.

Most children grow out of sleepwalking and night terrors on their own. If your child really suffers from sleep problems like sleepwalking and night terrors you can contact your GP or paediatrician for advice and help.


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