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Nightmares: Extreme nightmares, or 'night terrors'

If your child seems very disturbed and upset in the night, there is a possibility that what he's experiencing is something more serious than a typical nightmare, called a "night terror."

A night terror occurs while a child is in a deep sleep. Even though her eyes may be open, she will thrash around and show extreme fear for anywhere from a few minutes to an hour. She will not recognize or know you are there during the episode.

Unlike nightmares, night terrors are thought to have a biological basis, and they may run in families. They can also happen if a child is overtired, has recently given up naptime or has changed sleep routines. Children usually have night terrors about the same time each night, a few hours after falling asleep. Night terrors are most common between ages three and five. When your child wakes up, he will probably not even remember having one.

Here are two suggestions about handling night terrors:

  • Try not to wake your child - even though she may seem very upset. Instead, just watch and make sure she is safe and doesn't fall out of bed.

  • If he does wake up, comfort and reassure him that everything will be all right, you're there and he can go back to sleep. Stay with your child until he does. Perhaps rub your child's back, sing softly or lie down beside him.

Doctors also suggest that to help prevent night terrors from happening, you can try to wake your child about 30 minutes before the night terror usually starts and get her out of bed. Have her talk to you, and try to keep her awake for five minutes or more before letting her go back to sleep.

If your child is having night terrors, be sure to consult your child's physician.

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