Nightmares and Sleep Terrors: Should You Be Concerned?

While common in kids age 6 and under, nightmares and sleep terrors can signal a more serious condition. Discover the warning signs.

Nightmares and night terrors can occur in both adults and children, although children are more often affected. A number of factors can cause such sleep disorders, including:

  • Inadequate sleep
  • Stress and anxiety
  • Medications
  • Being sick

“Nathan’s night terrors occur when he is overtired or has had a really busy day or busy weekend,” says Thorson. In addition, night terrors tend to run in families, so there probably is a genetic component, says Dr. Salas. Thorson and her younger brother had night terrors as children.

Nightmare and Night Terror Prevention

Adequate sleep is the key. “Kids need to practice good sleep hygiene — go to bed and get up at the same time each day, get plenty of rest, avoid stressful activities near bedtime, and avoid scary movies and TV shows,” says Kohler.

Before going to bed each night, enjoy a relaxing activity together, such as reading a soothing book or telling a happy story.

One technique that may help in the prevention of night terrors involves waking your child before the night terror occurs, if you have a good sense of when that typically is. Begin waking him up every 15 minutes before the expected time of the night terror. Keep your child awake and out of bed for five minutes. Do this for seven consecutive nights. If night terrors return, continue to wake him as needed, and tell your child’s doctor.

This technique is not a sure-fire remedy. “Sometimes waking up Nathan before a night terror could almost start one,” Thorson says.

When to Be Concerned About Nightmares and Night Terrors

“In most cases, treatment for either nightmares or night terrors is not necessary,” says Kohler. However, if you notice any of the following signs, tell your child’s doctor because these may signal a more serious condition.

  • Drooling, jerking, or stiffening
  • Night terrors last longer than 30 minutes
  • Dangerous behavior during an episode
  • Night terrors late at night and closer to morning
  • Nightmares or night terrors that worsen or become more frequent

Sleep disorders are common in young kids — but if you are concerned, talk to your pediatrician or family doctor for reassurance and guidance.

By Hedy Marks, MPH – Medically reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH