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Nightmares and Night Terrors- Knowing the Difference

One of the most distressing things we go through as parents is when we are put into a situation where we feel helpless. Suddenly hear your child screaming in the middle of the night can be one of them. Nightmares and night terrors can be frightening situation for both the child and the parent.  

What do we do?   How do we comfort our child through these nightmares or night terrors? How do we get them back to sleep?

The uncertainty of not knowing what to do or how to help can come from not knowing the difference between a nightmare and a night terror. Nightmares and night terrors are two very different sleep disturbances and learning about the difference can help  in the way we work through the situation.  

Why do they occur?

Exactly how or why nightmares and night terrors occur is not known. Research has shown that nightmares can be related to the child’s stage of development and most nightmares are a normal part of coping with changes happening in our everyday lives.   Research has also shown that some factors such as being too tired at bedtime, not getting enough sleep on a regular basis, not having a consistent sleep routine, and going through a stressful situation in our lives CAN contribute to having nightmares and night terrors.

What is a NIGHTMARE?

According to the National Sleep Foundation nightmares are dreams with vivid and disturbing content.  They are most common in children during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep when most dreaming occurs. The child awakens from these dreams with intense fear, strong terror, distress or extreme anxiety and usually have good recall of what they were dreaming about. They CAN be caused by something that has really happened or something that the child has imagined.  Nightmares are extremely common between the ages of 3 and 6 years of age because this is the age at which normal fears develop and a child’s imagination is very active.

How to handle a NIGHTMARE

With nightmares, comforting and cuddling are best while encouraging your child to discuss their nightmare.  Helping them work through their fears by talking about it is so important.  Validating their feeling of being scared and talking with them until they are feeling less frightened by what they were dreaming of, is key.  What we do NOT want to do is to say to them is - " oh...that's not real,  just go back to sleep" because for them, it was VERY real. Some families find it very helpful to make up humorous NEW endings to the nightmare that their child has just experienced to help them feel safe, secure and less frightened.  


Night terrors are described as an episode of intense crying and fear and sometimes thrashing movement during sleep.  They occur during the first few hours of the night when your child is transitioning from one sleep stage to another.  A night terror can last for 10 to 30 minutes, or in some cases even longer.  The child may seem wide awake with their eyes open but they are screaming/crying and they are not aware of their surroundings or your presence, which ultimately can be very alarming for the parent. During a night terror the child will not be responsive to offers of support. Once the episode is over, the child relaxes and returns to sleep.  Approximately 3% of children between the ages of 4-12 years are affected by night terrors. Children are more likely to experience night terrors if there are other people in the family who have had night terrors, sleepwalking or sleep talking.

How to handle a NIGHT TERROR

Handling a night terror is very different from a nightmare.  If you suspect your child is having a night terror, it is best not to wake your child. Although this may be extremely challenging to do because our first instinct is to want to stop the episode from happening , it is best to allow your child to transition into the next stage of sleep without interfering.  Trying to wake your child may make them more agitated. We do however want to ensure their safety at all times.   You can try talking gently to them and gently holding your child if it seems to help them feel better.  If  this causes them to be more upset,  sitting nearby is best.  We want to avoid shaking or shouting at your child to wake up as this may cause your child to become more upset. During a night terror some children do get out of bed so try to gently direct them back to bed if this happens.

Sleep Tips on Reducing their Frequency:

If you feel that your child is prone to nightmares and/or night terrors you may need to be more protective of their sleep by looking at some factors that can contribute to their occurrences.  

* Make sure your child gets enough sleep and has an appropriate bedtime as being overtired is shown to be a major factor. Sometimes even adjusting bedtime to be 15 minutes earlier can make a world of difference. (See hours of sleep needed for each age group -!Sleep-Times-and-Wake-Times-for-your-Baby/c1ogi/2 )

* Implement a relaxing bedtime routine if one is not in place 

* Try and find a "trigger" for them - stressful situation at school, change is family dynamics, being sick, food sensitivity

* Evaluate the programs or movies they are watching to make sure they are age and content appropriate

* Electronic usage and screen time is turned off at least an hour before bedtime

Things to keep in mind:

You may also want to explain to people who care for your child (babysitters/other family members) what a night terror is and what to do if one happens.

If the night terrors/nightmares are happening on a regular basis, keeping a sleep log will help you see if there are any patterns that have formed.  This may in turn help to identify the "trigger" that is causing them.

Consult your pediatrician if your child's night terrors are concerning to you.

Still need help with some bumps in the road? We offer a FREE 20 minute "Get Acquainted" phone call to discuss your situation. Contact Babes & Beyond to get started and for a personalized sleep plan for your family. 

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