How to deal with baby nightmares and night terrors

As if colic, sleep regressions, and teething are not enough, your baby’s sleep is once again disturbed by some of the most common sleep problems – baby nightmares and baby night terrors.

You’ve already (long ago) said goodbye to your 5 hours of interrupted sleep when the baby was born. But it’s one thing for you to feel uncomfortable (and sleep-deprived) and another thing to look at your miserable baby experiencing a nightmare or a night terror and being unable to help them.

We have good news for you! The more you know about it, the easier it will be for you to react accordingly when they happen and prevent them from happening again. Read on for our invaluable parent advice on baby nightmares and baby night terrors and never feel helpless again at the sight of your baby having one of them.

How to tell the difference between baby nightmares and night terrors?

A common mistake inexperienced parents make is taking baby nightmares for night terrors (and vice versa). This makes it even more difficult for them to deal with the problem! If your child is having a nightmare, you won’t know about it until they wake up from their bad dream and feel upset at the memory of it. If your child is having a night terror, you will find it out right then and there while it happens and your child will be neither fully awake nor aware of the fact they are having night terrors.

You can also differentiate between the two judging by the time they occur. Baby night terrors usually happen while babies are deep asleep (in the first few hours after they go to bed) while baby nightmares usually take place early in the morning (between 2 am and 6 am) during the so-called REM sleep phase.

What are they?

Baby nightmares (also known as “bad dreams”) are basically scary dreams your baby or toddler is having. A bad dream often starts as a normal dream and it gradually turns into a nightmare, upsetting your child and making him wake up disturbed and often scared of the memory he has about his bad dream. The good news is that neither small children nor grown-ups remember all their dreams (normal or scary). The bad news is that if your child remembers his nightmare, they are going to be upset about it and will probably have difficulties going back to sleep.

When to expect them?

Having in mind that nightmares occur during the so-called REM sleep, we can assume that even a newborn can have a dream, hence a nightmare. This is, however, very difficult to prove as babies who haven’t learnt to speak yet will make it almost impossible for the parent to find out the reason the baby is crying and upset after he wakes up.

Normally, nightmares start occurring earliest at the age of 1 and become more common around the age of 2. This is understandable as 2 is also the age at which toddlers’ imagination starts going wild (a phase that won’t die down for the next couple of years anyway). In fact, there is no maximum age at which your child may stop having nightmares but after he is about 5 years old, he will have a better understanding of how dreams (and nightmares) work so he won’t be as bothered about them as when he was younger.

What causes baby nightmares and how to prevent them?

Almost anything that increases the stress levels in your toddler can cause a nightmare – a bedtime story (even if it doesn’t seem scary to you), a TV show or cartoon, too much excitement during the wake hours, anxiety, overtiredness, etc. Big changes in the toddler’s daily routine can also cause extra stress and, possibly, nightmares. These include potty/toilet training, a new sibling being welcomed into the family, moving from a crib to a toddler bed, etc.

Preventing nightmares is relatively easy – just try to reduce the stress levels of your little one as much as possible and you’ll be on your way to more and more nightmare-free nights. How to do it? Follow a calming bedtime routine, be picky about bedtime stories and TV shows your baby is involved in, and take it easy when introducing big daily routine changes.

How to handle baby nightmares?

It’s only natural to go check on your baby after you hear them cry. A tight hug and/or some back-rubbing will do wonders for your little one after a bad dream. If he is old enough, you can ask them to tell you what their dream was about, but don’t be too pushy. You can tell your child that it was “just a dream” – even if they still don’t quite get the difference, your verbal reassurance will calm them down. Bigger children can make use of a “monster spray” and the comfort of a favorite soft toy.

What are they?

A night terror is a half-awake half-asleep state in which your child is having a transition from deep sleep to REM sleep. A child having a night terror does look scary (sitting in their bed crying, screaming or whining). It’s important to remember, though, that it only lasts for a few minutes (very rarely up to 40 minutes) and when it’s over, your baby is peacefully back to sleep without any recollection of the disturbance.

When to expect them?

Even newborns can experience sleep episodes that resemble night terrors, but true night terrors are more often attributed to older children (10 to 18 years old). Babies and toddlers go through such conditions while they make a transition between the different sleep cycles (from deep sleep to REM sleep). Night terrors usually happen in the first phase of sleep (within the first few hours after your baby has fallen asleep).

What causes baby night terrors and how to prevent them?

It has nothing to do with your child being scared. They can, however, be caused by overtiredness, lack of enough sleep, and increased levels of stress. In order to prevent sleep terrors from occurring, you should make sure your little one gets enough sleep and has a calming daily and bedtime routine.

How to handle baby night terrors?

A baby having a night terror is not actually aware of your presence, so it’s useless to try to comfort them during this sleep interruption. They are unlikely to respond to you so the wisest thing to do is stay close (in case they wake up) without trying to interrupt the process.

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