Nightmares vs. Night Terrors

by | Oct 28, 2019

Nightmares and night terrors are an unfortunate part of the childhood experience. But most of the time, they are more frightening for the parent than they are for the child. There is truly nothing worse than being awoken by the sound of a terrified scream coming from your child’s bedroom.

But are nightmares and night terrors the same thing? How can you differentiate between them? Knowing the difference between these two phenomena is key to determining just how to handle them (and how to prevent them, too!)


Nightmares are fairly common in children ages 2-4 and though they are scary, they’re also a very normal part of development. They often stem from hearing a scary story or watching something graphic or frightening on TV. During toddlerhood, imaginations are expanding and normal fears begin to develop. Toddlers and young children have difficulty distinguishing between fantasy and reality making innocuous things seem terrifyingly real. Additionally, normal childhood experiences occurring around this time can cause extra stress which also can trigger nightmares. Things like moving into a big-kid bed, potty training, starting preschool, or even getting a new sibling.

As children age, their grasp on reality becomes firmer but their exposure to and comprehension of real-life dangers also increases. You may see your 5-8 year old plagued with nightmares about natural disasters, robbers, or losing a parent.

Nightmares occur during REM sleep – the end-stage of one complete sleep cycle – and typically occur during the second half of the night. If your child has a nightmare, they will usually wake and seek out comfort for their disturbing dream. They may even be able to verbalize what frightened them in that moment. After waking from a nightmare, it could take children a while to fall back to sleep and rid their mind of the scary thoughts that felt so incredibly real.

Reducing Nightmares
  • Say no to the scary stuff. Avoid exposure to scary or overstimulating movies, TV shows, video games, books, or play. This is especially important in the hours leading up to bedtime.
  • Have a relaxing and predictable bedtime routine that does not include any screen-time.
  • Embrace the early bedtime. Overtiredness and sleep deprivation can cause nightmares.
  • Reduce daily stressors. Recurring nightmares can be an indication of stress. Help your child practice deep breathing and relaxation exercises throughout the day and incorporate calming activities into the bedtime routine.
  • If your child is afraid of the dark, use a small nightlight situated behind a piece of furniture to limit direct exposure. Use a light that glows a soft yellow, amber, or red instead of one that is white or blue.
  • Check with your child’s pediatrician to make sure your little one is not on any medications that may be interfering with quality nighttime sleep or can cause nightmares.
Handling Nightmares

If your child wakes from a nightmare, respond right away. Help your child to calm down and allow them to talk about their dream if they want. You can reassure your child that it was only a dream, but remember that this dream likely felt very real to your little one so try not to disregard their scared feelings. Remind your child that it is your job to make sure they are safe while sleeping, and leave them feeling calm and confident.

Night Terrors

Night terrors are categorically different from nightmares in both causes and experience. While nightmares occur during REM sleep, night terrors happen during non-REM sleep and usually happen within 2-3 hours after bedtime. Night terrors are not bad dreams, and children typically have no recollection of this event the next morning. Regardless, night terrors can be absolutely terrifying for you as the parent.

If your child is experiencing a night terror, they might scream inconsolably, become drenched in sweat, and may not even respond or calm when you go to comfort them. Night terror episodes typically last between 5-15 minutes before your child calms down enough to fall back to sleep, but because this event occurs during non-REM sleep, they are actually not dreaming at all.

 Night terrors are most common in boys between the ages of 2-5 and do have a hereditary component. Sometimes they occur during developmental leaps, but the most common cause of night terrors is sleep deprivation or a disturbance to your child’s typical sleep patterns such as overtiredness, traveling across time zones, or going to bed very late.

Reducing Night Terrors
  • Put your child to bed earlier. Bedtime throughout childhood should be between 7:00-8:00 p.m.
  • Ensure your child is getting the recommended amount of sleep for their age, and keep a consistent sleep schedule for your child.
Handling Night Terrors
  • If your child is in the midst of a night terror episode, monitor your child for safety but try not to interfere as this can worsen the situation. It is best not to wake your child and, instead, guide them back to sleep as they start to calm down.
  • Make sure your child is physically safe in their bedroom. You might have to put a gate at the top of the stairs, add low lighting in the hallway, remove clutter that they could trip over, or bolt down any bedroom furniture.
  • Don’t try to talk about the episode during the night or the next day. This could frighten your child and lead to stress at bedtime.
If Night Terrors are Common & Consistently Happen at The Same Time Each Night…
  • Keep a sleep log to chart your child’s sleep patterns for at least 1 week.
  • Ensure they are meeting their minimum sleep needs.
  • Gently rouse your child 15 minutes prior to the time they usually have an episode.
  • Do this every night for 7-10 nights in a row and the episodes should start to diminish.
  • Speak with your pediatrician to rule out any medical sleep disturbances.

I truly believe that knowledge is power and when we know better, we do better. Knowing how to differentiate between nightmares and night terrors is important to determine the best course of action for handling them and to make sure everyone sleeps peacefully.

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If you’re exhausted, totally overwhelmed by your child’s sleep habits, or looking for answers to the sleep questions that keep you up at night (literally), then you’ve come to the right place. I’m Jamie, founder of Oh Baby Consulting, and my goal is to help your family get the sleep you need to not just survive, but thrive!

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