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Nightmares and night terrors: what are they?

Recently, I have found myself losing sleep because parents are always asking me questions about their children having nightmares and night terrors. They wonder if both are due to the coronavirus or something else. Fear not, for this week I shall tell you a bit about both of these sleep issues.

What is the difference?

Nightmares are simply scary dreams occurring in about 25% of children at least once a week. They usually occur during the second half of the night when dreaming is more intense. Night terrors, rarer but still seen in up to 3% of children, happen earlier in the evening before your child enters dream sleep, usually about an hour or two after they go to bed.

A nightmare may result in a child waking up and seeking comfort from parents because they are scared or frightened about something they dreamt about, such as the coronavirus affecting them or someone they love, and children will usually want to tell you about their bad dream.

A night terror results in a child sitting up in bed, often screaming or crying out, thrashing around often with eyes wide open, even sleep walking, but with no response to parents being there to calm the child down, and no recall of the event the following morning. Night terrors tend to run in families and occur more in children who are overtired, stressed or fatigued. This could be from worrying too much about the coronavirus, but being overtired or stressed can also result in more nightmares as well.

Is a night terror dangerous?

Although scary to watch, a night terror is dangerous only if your child gets out of bed and begins to sleep walk during one, so please be sure that you have a gate across the steps. If necessary, hold your child close to you while having the night terror so they do not get out of bed and hurt themselves.

How do you prevent nightmares and night terrors?

My best advice is to make sure your child gets a good night’s sleep by having a regular bedtime and sleep routine. Avoid their being exposed to things that would make your child more anxious or stressed, such as too much watching or hearing news about the pandemic and COVID-19.

Hopefully, tips like these will result in pleasant dreams for you and your child once you’ve learned not to worry when it comes to your child’s coronavirus stress-related or perhaps unrelated nightmares and night terrors.

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Lewis First, MD, is chief of pediatrics at the University of Vermont Children’s Hospital of Vermont Children’s Hospital and chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Vermont’s Larner College of Medicine. You can also catch “First with Kids” weekly on WOKO 98.9FM and NBC5.

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