Apr 1, 2000 Table of Contents

Please note: This information was current at the time of publication. But medical information is always changing, and some information given here may be out of date. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit familydoctor.org, the AAFP patient education Web site.

Information from Your Family Doctor

Nightmares and Night Terrors in Children

Am Fam Physician. 2000 Apr 1;61(7):2044.

See related article on nightmares and disorders of dreaming.

What are nightmares?

Nightmares are scary dreams. Most children have them from time to time. One out of every four children has nightmares more than once a week. Most nightmares happen very late in the sleep period (usually between 4 and 6 a.m.). Your child may wake up and come to you for comfort. Usually, he or she will be able to tell you what happened in the dream and why it was scary. Your child may have trouble going back to sleep. Your child might have the same dream again on other nights.

What are night terrors?

Some children have a different kind of scary dream called a “night terror.” Night terrors happen during deep sleep (usually between 1 and 3 a.m.). A child having a night terror will often wake up screaming. He or she may be sweating and breathing fast. Your child's pupils (the black center of the eye) may look larger than normal. At this point, your child may still be asleep, with open eyes. He or she will be confused and might not answer when you ask what's wrong. Your child may be difficult to wake and, on awakening, he or she usually won't remember the night terror.

Will my child keep having nightmares or night terrors?

Nightmares and night terrors don't happen as much as children get older. Often, nightmares and night terrors stop completely when your child is a teenager. Some people, especially people who are imaginative and creative, may keep having nightmares when they are adults.

When should I worry about nightmares or night terrors?

Nightmares and night terrors in children are usually not caused by mental or physical illness.

Nightmares often happen after a stressful physical or emotional event. In the first six months after the event, a child might have nightmares while he or she gets used to what happened in the event. If nightmares keep happening and disturb your child's sleep, they can affect your child's ability to function during the day. Talk with your doctor about whether treatment will help your child.

Night terrors and sleepwalking require that you protect your child during sleep. Be sure your home is safe (use toddler gates on staircases and don't use bunk beds for these children). Talk with your doctor if your child ever gets hurt while sleeping. Your doctor may want to study your child during sleep.


This handout is provided to you by your family doctor and the American Academy of Family Physicians. Other health-related information is available from the AAFP online at http://familydoctor.org.

This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.

Copyright © 2000 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.
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