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Is the Child Having a Nightmare or Night Terror?

I learned recently about the difference between a nightmare and a night terror, as I put together a workshop on “Anxieties and Fears in Children”.  One out of every four children between the ages of 3 and 8 experience either night terrors or night‑mares. Both of these situations can be unnerving, but are
generally short‑lived.

Night terrors generally occur within
an hour of falling asleep.  The child awakens suddenly from a state of deep
sleep in a state of panic.  He or she may scream, sit up in bed, breathe
quickly, and stare “glassy eyed.”  The child also may seem confused,
disoriented, and incoherent.  Each episode can last from 5 to 30 minutes.  A
child who experiences night terrors is not aware of any scary thoughts or
dreams and is usually able to go back to sleep quickly.  In the morning, he or
she usually doesn’t remember waking at all.  Night terrors may occur for several
years.  Generally they go away with time and are not an indication of any
underlying emotional problems.

Nightmares generally occur in the early morning hours.  Children who experience nightmares can often recall the vivid details of their
scary dream and may have difficulty going back to sleep.  Nightmares will often
center on a specific problem or life event that is troubling the child.  Parents
can help by remaining calm and hold the child close and talk in a soft soothing
voice to comfort and reassure the child.  If possible, the parent or teacher
should stay close by until he or she falls asleep.  Calm, consistent handling of
nightmares or terrors will help the child feel safe and secure.

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