It's Halloween—what better time to talk about terrible things that crop up in the dead of night? In the spirit of All Hallow’s Eve, I’d love to shed some light on the murky world of night terrors. Nightmares and night terrors are often confused by parents, and they are indeed confusing. Both happen in the middle of the night, and both can be upsetting and disruptive to sleep. When your child starts screaming in the wee hours, when you’re groggy and your thinking is fuzzy, it can difficult to know exactly what to do.
Though night terrors and nightmares seem similar, they have some distinctively different characteristics than can help you figure out which your child is experiencing.
Myth: A night terror is just an intensely upsetting nightmare.
Fact: Night terrors differ substantially from nightmares. First, a nightmare will often cause a child to wake up in the middle of the night. During a night terror, the child is not awake. Though she may get up and sleepwalk, she won’t come and find you. And in the morning, she won’t remember a thing (because she was never awake).
Myth: A night terror is a horrible experience for a child.
Fact: While a child may have some upsetting memory of nightmare, they won’t remember a night terror. The experience is probably more upsetting for the parent who is trying to comfort their screaming child, than it is for the child.
Myth: It’s best to wake a child who is having a night terror.
Fact: “Don’t try and wake them up,” says Matt Woolley, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist who often works with children experiencing nightmares and night terrors. “Be calm and comforting, offer a gentle back rubbing. Once the child calms down, you can redirect him or her back to bed and maybe offer a glass of water. But do not force a drink of water, try to make them speak to you, or make them go to the bathroom.” Remember, the child is not awake.
Myth: All children experience night terrors at some point.
Fact: While nightmares are a near-universal childhood experience, true night terrors are much less common, affecting only about a quarter of children. That’s good news, because most children won’t ever have one.
Myth: Children with night terrors have psychological problems.
Fact: Though night terrors can be intense and upsetting, they don’t indicate underlying problems. “A child can be very happy and well-adjusted and still have a night terror,” notes Woolley.
Night terrors are no fun, and I hope they don't come knocking at your place this Halloween. Here's to a Halloween followed by sweet dreams!