Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2005;72(7):1322

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 between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. Your child may wake up and come to you for comfort. He or she might be able to tell you what happened in the dream and why it was scary. Your child may have trouble going back to sleep and might have the same dream again.

What are night terrors?

Some children have a different kind of scary dream called a “night terror.” Night terrors usually happen between 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. Your child might wake up screaming, and he or she may be sweating and breathing fast. When this happens, your child is still asleep, but his or her eyes are open. Your child might not answer you if you ask what’s wrong, and it might be hard to wake him or her up. Your child usually does not remember what happened.

Will my child keep having nightmares or night terrors?

Nightmares and night terrors don’t happen as much as children get older. Nightmares and night terrors probably will stop when your child is a teenager. Some people, especially those who are creative and have active imaginations, may keep having nightmares when they are adults.

When should I worry about nightmares or night terrors?

Nightmares and night terrors do not mean your child is sick or has mental problems. Nightmares often happen for a few months after a child has a physical or emotional stress. If nightmares keep happening, your child might have trouble with normal activity during the day. Ask your doctor if treatment can help.

What should I do?

Make sure your child is safe during the night. Use toddler gates on staircases, and don’t use bunk beds for children who have nightmares or night terrors often. Talk with your doctor if your child gets hurt while he or she is asleep. Your doctor may want to test your child.

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