close up photo of sleeping baby

how to help your child with nightmares and night terrors

It can be very distressing when your child is waking up because of a bad dream at night. But, did you know that there is a difference between nightmares and night terrors? Why do they happen? This blog post will give you all the answers, and insights of how to help your child with those sleep disturbances.

Nightmare vs. night terror

There are some distinct differences between the two. I usually say that nightmares are worse for the kids and night terrors are worse for the parents. Why?

Your toddler will fully wake up from a nightmare, that means that he is easy to be calmed by the parent’s presence. Some snuggles and reassuring words, and he will stop screaming. But, he will remember what his bad dream was about. Monsters in the closet? Spiders under the bed? He can recall and tell you about it. It’ll most likely stick in his mind for a while after, manifesting his fears.

On the other hand, when a night terror occurs, he seems awake but he actually never fully wakes up. He might flail his arms, kick legs and scream and cry uncontrollably. You keep trying to offer cuddles and hugs but no matter the comforting you offer, he won’t stop. Until all of as sudden, after 5 minutes, or maybe 30, 40 minutes, he stops and lays back down as if nothing happened. What was that?! He won’t remember the next morning. You will.

Why do they happen? Do I need to be worried?

There are a few things that are known to be reason for nightmares and night terrors. Here are the most common ones:

  • Over-tiredness
  • Too much over-stimulating screen time
  • Foods high in sugars and food dyes, or hidden caffeine (chocolate, tea)
  • Developing imagination of the toddler
  • Change (Move, new school, start of potty training, moving to a toddler bed, etc.)

Almost every child has nightmares every now and then, and it’s not usually a reason to be worried. At around 2 years of age, their imagination is developing greatly, which is why nightmares often start occurring around that age.

Only a small percentage of children suffer from night terrors, though it is not usually cause for concern or the sign of anything medically wrong. Please reach out to your pediatrician if you have any concerns. Most night terrors are seen in kids age 4 and up, but it can happen as early as 18 months.

How can I help my child when a nightmare or night terror happens?

When your child wakes form a nightmare, offer comfort to calm him down. Pick him up, snuggle him, talk to him. Be sure to let him know that it was just a dream and that dreams aren’t real and can’t hurt him. Validate his feelings, be sure he feels heard and don’t down-play his fears. Ask what the dream was about, and talk about it over the next days so ease his fears.

For a night terror, you really just want to make sure that your child stays safe. Don’t try to wake him as this might just make it worse. Wait it out and be right next to him. As bad as it sounds, there is really not more you can do at that moment.

What can i do to prevent them?

Enough sleep

Make sure your little one is getting adequate sleep. I recommend 14 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period for 1-2 year olds and at least 12 hours for 3 and 4 year olds. Keep in mind that this is just a guideline and every child has different sleep needs. Need help getting your toddler to sleep better? I’m here for you! Book a free discovery call now to see how I can help you.

Cut out screen time

Besides the amount of sleep, the biggest thing I look at when I work with parents whose kids wake up from nightmares/night terrors is looking at their screen time. I am not one to preach that you can’t have your child watch TV (believe me, I’m very much guilty of putting Cocomelon on when I need a break). BUT if your child is suffering from sleep disturbances, this can be a big trigger. I recommend cutting out ALL screens (TV, phone, tablets) for at least 2 weeks and see what difference it makes.

The reason for this is that a lot of children shows are made with a lot of bright colors, fast changes and just generally a lot going on, to hold the kid’s attention. Their brains aren’t made for that yet, they can’t handle all of that quite yet and get overstimulated. In addition, even age appropriate shows can have elements that are scary for your toddler. They might not seem like it, but as we discussed earlier, your little one’s imagination is developing rapidly, and they can take one little scene and turn it into something scary.

Quality time in their room

Do this as part of their bedtime routine, but also during the day if possible. Put your phone away and just play with your kid in his room. Build forts, have a dance party, play with dolls or cars, whatever he likes. We want him to feel comfortable in his room and make good memories in it, so positive vibes only!

Healthy diet

Be sure to offer your child healthy, balanced food options. I know, I know, my toddler is picky too and it can be a pain to get them to eat their vegetables or say no when they ask for a piece of chocolate with their big puppy eyes. Just watch out for things like food dyes, added sugars or hidden caffeine in things like chocolate or tea.

Reduce Stress

This can be a hard one, because a lot of stress factors, like having to move, starting a new school, etc., you have no control over. But the things you are in control of, like starting potty training, transitioning to the toddler bed, should wait, if possible. Don’t put to much on them at once. Make sure to communicate with your toddler and prepare him for big chance, so he knows what’s coming.

Bedtime Routine

Create a calming and consistent bedtime routine. This will prepare your toddler that it is time for bed and gives him comfort. Kids and parents thrive off of routines. It takes away the stress of having to think about what to do next. A good bedtime routine could be something like bath, diaper and pajamas, read books, snuggles, noise machine on and lights out.

Exercise and outdoor time

Weather permitting, try to spend some time outside everyday. Go to the playground, the park, or just take a walk in your neighborhood. Sunshine during the day and exercise will really help your toddler sleep better, boost everyone’s mood and make you all feel better!


I usually recommend the room for babies to be pitch black. I still want your toddler’s room to be dark, but once they voice a fear of the dark (usually around age 2), go ahead and use a nightlight. Don’t make it too bright, just enough for your kid to see his room, and use the red light setting if possible. Red light does not stimulate the brain as much at night as blue or yellow light, so this is the preferred color for any nightlight.

Games in the dark

One of my favorite tips for kids with nightmares! When your kid is afraid of his room at night, even with a nightlight, make it a game. Hide some of his favorite toys (stuffed animals, cars, etc.) in his room, turn off the light and have him go find them with a flashlight. So much fun, and he will learn that it’s not scary at all!

breaking the cycle

The worst thing about nightmares and night terrors is, that they make our kids sleep worse. The worse they sleep, the more prone they are to have nightmares and terrors. Vicious cycle, isn’t it? But it can be broken! Follow my tips and you will get there! Be patient on your child and yourself. And always remember: I am just one click away if you need anything! You got this, Mama!



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