Our Blog

At Advanced Cardiovascular Sleep Disorder Center in Auburn, AL, we always want to keep our clients informed. Check out our blog entries on the latest news and developments regarding sleep disorders.

National Sleep Awareness Month: When kids' sleep isn't dreamless and the dreams aren't sweet...

March 14, 2018

sleep terrors nightmares night parasomnia children


[by Tamara Sellman RPSGT CCSH for Advanced Cardiovascular Sleep Disorders Center]

Sometimes, it's not getting kids to go to sleep at bedtime that's a problem for some families. Sometimes it's the more scary sleep problems known as nightmares and sleep terrors that keep both kids and parents awake at night. 

Believe it or not, while these both sound like the same sleep disorder, they are two very different kinds of sleep problems that children (and some adults) experience. 

What are nightmares?

Vivid dreams that are disturbing or scary constitute nightmares. Children who have nightmares wake up in a cold sweat, their hearts pounding, and they may be emotionally upset. They will recall the content of their nightmares and be able to tell you about them in the morning. 

What are sleep terrors?

Children who wake up screaming and crying, while thrashing in bed, actively sleep walking or become physically aggressive, may be having sleep terrors (also called night terrors). They seem like they are wide awake but they are, in fact, completely asleep. They are usually inconsolable during this episodes, which can last between a few minutes and half an hour. Once the episode passes, they settle down and return to calm, peaceful sleep. They will not be able to recall their episodes if you ask about them in the morning.

What's the main difference between nightmares and sleep terrors?

Nightmares are much more common; they occur during REM sleep as a kind of REM parasomnia. Sleep terrors are far less common; they occur during nonREM sleep as a kind of nonREM parasomnia.

REM sleep

This is the stage of sleep we most commonly associate with dreams. It's identified by characteristic rapid eye movements (REM) which take place while the eyes are shut. In fact, REM was initially discovered when researchers studied the faces of sleeping babies and toddlers. REM is unique to this stage, which is thought to help with learning, processing of experiences, brain "self cleaning," and memory consolidation. 

Nightmares happen in REM sleep because they are simply unpleasant, terrifying dream experiences. Stress, anxiety and trauma are reasons why some people (children and adults) experience nightmares.

NonREM sleep

All other stages of sleep do not typically involve dreaming. Stage 1 sleep is light and transitional. Stage 2 sleep constitutes normal sleep, which is the stage we mostly experience at night. Stage 3 is also known as deep sleep or slow-wave sleep, and it is the stage when the body does its healing and regeneration at the cellular level.

Sleep terrors happen in nonREM sleep as a result of problematic transitions between these stages and REM. These disruptions are thought to be caused by misalignments in the central nervous system. Sleep terrors may be caused by the same things as nightmares. However, poor nightly sleep (even sleep lost from time changes), medication side effects, and a spiked fever may also be to blame. 

Should parents be worried if their children experience these scary sleep episodes?

Both forms of parasomnia aren't thought to be troublesome by themselves as they usually don't recur. They mostly happen in the preschool years, though they can occur throughout childhood and even into adulthood. 

If your child should experience either of these parasomnias, it's best to help console them, if you are able; during sleep terrors, this may be impossible, so you are best advised to keep an eye on your child to ensure they are safe from unintended self harm.  

If a child experiences frequent nightmares or episodes of sleep terrors, it is recommended that they visit the family pediatrician to seek out causes, as these kinds of sleep problems, if they repeat over a period of time, may point to other problems that need investigation.