Resource Center Everything You Need to Know About Nightmares

For many parents, learning more about night terrors means learning more about nightmares, too. After all, on the surface they may appear quite similar. They’re both upsetting occurrences that may cause members of your family to lose sleep at night. But when you actually dig in, nightmares are quite different from night terrors. Here’s a deeper look at this common nighttime phenomenon. 

What Are Nightmares? 

Nightmares are fairly universal experiences. Adults, kids and even pets experience nightmares. These scary dreams often include monsters, dangerous situations, animals, or bad people. Nightmares can also cause a partial or complete awakening, usually at an extreme point of fear. (Say, just as the monster reaches toward you.) 

Nightmares can begin as early as age 3. They tend peak during the preschool years, when fear of the dark is at its worst. 

Besides the scariness factor, a key characteristic of nightmares is when they occur. Like normal dreams, nightmares happen during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when our brains are very active. The longest periods of REM sleep occur towards morning, which explains why nightmares tend to happen during the second half of the night. 

What Causes Nightmares? 

There are all kinds of factors that can cause children to have nightmares. Sometimes nightmares are sparked by life events or new situations like moving, starting a new school, the birth of a sibling or divorce. Sometimes nightmares are the result of a bigger trauma like an injury or recent natural disaster. Most often though, nightmares are triggered by every day stress or scary TV shows and movies. They can also occur for no reason at all. Unless a nightmare is particularly troubling to hear about for you as a parent, try not to spend too much time worrying about what your child’s dreams or nightmares mean. Finding a non-arbitrary explanation might be an uphill battle. 

Tips for Preventing Nightmares 

It’s normal for your child to have a nightmare once in awhile, but here are some simple ways you can cut down on them. 

  • Stick to a regular bedtime and wakeup time. 
  • Establish a regular bedtime routine that helps your child relax. Include a pleasant tradition like reviewing all the good things that happened that day or reading a fun, imaginative (but not scary!) story. 
  • Avoid scary stimuli before bed. That goes for movies, TV shows, and stories. Remember that what doesn’t scare you might still be scary to your child. 
  • Use comforting props like a favorite stuffed animal, a night light, a security blanket, or a dreamcatcher. 
  • Discuss the nightmare during the daytime. Talking through nightmares during the light of day can help reduce their creepiness and may even reveal whether there is something bothering your child. Once you’ve talked about it, though, put the topic to rest. Retreading the details of a nightmare over and over might make your child more likely to remember it and repeat it.  
  • If your child’s nightmares become worse, more frequent, or start to affect their daily life, it may be helpful to speak with a doctor or counselor. 

What’s the Difference Between Nightmares and Night Terrors? 

It’s very common for night terrors to be mistaken for nightmares, but the two are much more different than you might think. Read this article to become a pro at deciphering which phenomenon you’re dealing with. 

If you have any other questions, feel free to tweet us at @lullysleep and we’d be happy to help! 


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