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Nightmares, Night Terrors & Sleepwalking in Children

Children may wake up or not sleep well during the night for different reasons. Nightmares , night terrors, sleepwalking and sleep talking, for example, are common sleep problems among kids. Here are some tips to keep in mind when they happen.

Nightmares

Nightmares are scary dreams that often happen during the second half of the night when dreaming is most intense. Children may start having nightmares as young as 6 months of age. They tend to peak between 3 and 12 years old. Children may wake up crying or feeling afraid and may have trouble falling back to sleep.

What you can do

  • Go to your child as quickly as possible.

  • Assure them that you are there and will not let anything harm them.

  • Encourage them to tell you what happened in the dream. Remind them that dreams are not real.

  • Allow them to keep a light on if it makes them feel better.

  • Once your child is ready, encourage them to go back to sleep.

  • See if there is something that is scaring your child, like shadows. If so, make sure they are gone.

Night terrors

Night terrors occur most often in toddlers and preschoolers. They take place during the deepest stages of sleep. Deepest sleep is usually early in the night, often before parents' bedtime.

During a night terror, your child might:

  • Cry uncontrollably

  • Sweat, shake or breathe fast

  • Have a terrified, confused or glassy-eyed look

  • Thrash around, scream, kick or stare

  • Not recognize you or realize you are there

  • Try to push you away, especially if you try to hold them

While night terrors can last as long as 45 minutes, most are much shorter. Most children fall right back to sleep after a night terror because they actually have not been awake. Unlike a nightmare, a child will not remember a night terror.

What you can do

  • Stay calm. Children are unaware of ever having a night terror because they are asleep, so there is no effect on children, only parents.

  • Make sure your child cannot hurt themself. If they try to get out of bed, gently restrain them.

  • Remember, after a short time your child will probably relax and sleep quietly again. If your child has night terrors, be sure to tell babysitters what they are and what to do. If night terrors keep happening, talk with your child's doctor.

Sleepwalking & sleep talking

Like night terrors, sleepwalking and sleep talking happen when children are in a deep sleep. While sleepwalking, children may have a blank stare. They may not respond to others, and it may be very difficult to wake them up. Most sleepwalkers return to bed on their own and do not remember getting out of bed. Sleepwalking tends to run in families. It can even occur several times in one night among older children and teens.

What you can do

  • Make sure children don't hurt themselves while sleepwalking. Clear the bedroom of things children could trip or fall on.

  • Lock outside doors so children cannot leave the house.

  • Block stairways so children cannot go up or down.

  • Do not try to wake children when they are sleepwalking or sleep talking. Gently lead them back to bed, and they will probably settle down on their own.

Remember

If you have any questions or concerns about your child's sleep habits, don't hesitate to talk with your pediatrician.

More information

Last Updated
9/30/2022
Source
Adapted from Sleep Problems in Children (American Academy of Pediatrics Copyright © 2022)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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