As parents, we have likely all experienced the challenges bed time can bring. Whether our children are not tired, too tired, too hot, scared of monsters under the bed, scared of sleeping alone or wake frequently in the night, bed time can be a challenge – and this is compounded even more so when our child experiences nightmares or even night terrors.

Nightmares and night terrors are terrifying for children and equally distressing for us. But what exactly are they, and how can we help our kids (and ourselves) get through them?

Let’s dive into the world of nightmares and night terrors and uncover some practical tips to ease those restless nights.

What Are Nightmares and Night Terrors?

Nightmares are bad dreams that occur during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. They usually happen in the second half of the night when REM sleep is more frequent. Children might wake up from these vivid dreams and remember the scary details, making them afraid to go back to sleep.

Night Terrors, on the other hand, are a bit more mysterious. These occur during non-REM sleep, often within the first few hours after falling asleep. During a night terror, your child might sit up in bed, scream, thrash around, or appear panicked. They usually have no memory of the episode the next morning.

Signs and Symptoms of Nightmares and Night Terrors


  • Waking up crying or frightened.
  • Talking about a scary dream.
  • Being afraid to go back to sleep.
  • Clinging to you or wanting to sleep in your bed.

Night Terrors:

  • Screaming or shouting in sleep.
  • Sweating, rapid breathing, or increased heart rate.
  • Sitting upright with wide eyes but not fully awake.
  • Difficulty calming down.
  • May be accompanied by sleep walking.
  • No memory of the episode the next day.

The Neuroscience Behind Nightmares and Night Terrors

REM Sleep and Nightmares: REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement sleep, is one of the five stages of sleep that we cycle through multiple times a night. It’s during this stage that our brains are highly active, and we experience our most vivid dreams. REM sleep plays a crucial role in processing emotions, consolidating memories, and fostering creativity. However, this heightened brain activity can sometimes lead to nightmares, especially if your child is dealing with stress, anxiety, or even a particularly stimulating day.

Night Terrors and Non-REM Sleep: Night terrors, on the other hand, occur during the deep stages of non-REM sleep, specifically during the transition from one sleep cycle to another. The brain gets “stuck” in a state between sleep and wakefulness, leading to these dramatic and distressing episodes. This phase of sleep is characterised by slower brain waves and is crucial for physical restoration and growth. Unlike REM sleep, non-REM sleep doesn’t involve vivid dreams, which is why children usually don’t remember night terrors.

Typically, night time is a time when children’s worries and anxieties surface. How often have you found yourself tucking your child into bed for the night, only for them to suddenly open up about the things that have been on their mind all day? Often, children can suppress their worries as they go about their day, and it is only when they’re faced with the space to reflect on their day at night time that they realise how busy their mind is. Very often, these worries precede nightmares or night terrors and are fueled by a general sense of anxiety.

Here at The Youth Fairy, we support children to develop a greater understanding of their anxiety and develop the tools and strategies to move forwards in a more positive and relaxed way.

Top Tips for Parents to Handle Nightmares and Night Terrors

Now that we know what’s happening, let’s arm ourselves with some tips to tackle these night time disturbances to help our little ones get a better night’s sleep:

  1. Create a Calm Bedtime Routine: A consistent, soothing routine can work wonders. Think warm baths, bedtime stories, and soft music to signal to your child’s brain that it’s time to wind down.
  2. Ensure a Comfortable Sleep Environment: Make sure your child’s room is cool, dark, and quiet. A cosy and familiar environment can help reduce anxiety and promote better sleep.
  3. Talk About Their Day: Spend some time before bed talking about their day. Address any worries or fears they might have to help ease their mind before sleep. Try to end these chats on a positive note before bed, such as seeing who can think of the most positive things about their day before they close their eyes for sleep!
  4. Limit Screen Time: We all know this, but reducing exposure to screens at least an hour before bedtime is so important for a restful night’s sleep. The blue light from screens can interfere with the production of melatonin, the sleep hormone. Encourage your child to replace screens before bed with reading, listening to chilled out music or having a bubble bath.
  5. Offer Comfort and Reassurance: If your child wakes up from a nightmare, be there to offer hugs and comforting words. Let them know they are safe and secure. Often a cuddly toy can provide comfort and sometimes it can help if your child is tasked with ‘looking after’ the cuddly toy at night time, or telling them that the cuddly toy will protect them. There are some brilliant visualisation techniques to use with this. Positive visualisation is proven to help the brain move from the fight and flight state to the calm, parasympathetic state (think rest and digest). Visualisation is a key tool we use a lot with children here at The Youth Fairy.
  6. Stay Calm During Night Terrors: If your child is experiencing a night terror, try not to wake them. Instead, ensure they are safe and speak softly until the episode passes. Remember, they won’t remember it in the morning.

When to Seek Professional Help

While occasional nightmares and night terrors are usually nothing to worry about, if they become frequent or severe, it might be time to seek professional advice. Visiting your GP is always a good place to start and it may also be worth reaching out for support from a therapist to help your child to move forwards.

Nightmares and night terrors can be daunting, but with a little understanding and some practical strategies, you can help your child (and yourself) navigate through them. Remember, you’re not alone in this – many parents have been in your shoes and come out the other side with happy, well-rested kids.

Sleep tight, and sweet dreams to you and your little ones! 🌙💤

If you need further support for your child, The Youth Fairy is here to help! Find your nearest fairy here and book in your free 1-hour initial consultation.