When your child was a baby, she or he would wake up more frequently at night during significant developmental changes such as crawling and walking.
But as early as 18 months old, your child can wake from experiencing nightmares—vivid and emotionally intense dreams. Researchers have found that approximately 40% of children ages 2 to 8 experience nightmares.
A smaller number of children experience some thing more intense called night terrors. Nightmares and night terrors have common triggers, such as (but not limited to) a fall, seeing violence on a television news program, or a significant loss such as the death of a pet or loved one. With young children, seemingly harmless experiences can be traumatic because they have not yet developed categories to understand unfamiliar experiences and therefore feel frightened.
While parenting through both nightmares and night terrors can be upsetting, neither sleep disturbance in and of itself is serious cause for concern. If your child shows signs of stress in other ways (like bedwetting or daytime anxiety), you may want to talk to a child therapist who can help identify an underlying issue such as an unrecognized traumatic event or fear. In a similar vein, if your young child experiences regular sleep disturbances without other accompanying signs of stress for more than a month, you will want to consult a trusted professional for guidance.
Although they do have common triggers, nightmare and night terrors are different sleep disturbances and need different responses from you. The table below helps you understand just how to see your child through one of these disturbances.
Has your preschooler been having nightmares or night terrors? Share your story below.