Night Terrors VS. Nightmares – What’s the difference? May 23, 2019

When it comes to parenting, there are few things as terrifying or heartbreaking as witnessing your child waking up screaming in fear in the middle of the night. What’s worse, if you don’t know how to console them. If you are unable to recognize the difference, it can be difficult to manage your child through this night awakening. They should be managed differently.


  • are vivid dreams that are intense in feelings of fear or dread
  • when children awaken they can vividly recall the dream with details
  • can be caused by things that have really happened or make believe
  • commonly occur in children’s ages 3-6 years old, when they have strong imaginations
  • usually occurs during the first second part of the night during  REM or light sleep
  • children are responsive to comforting from their caregiver, wake and reassure them
  • If you try and interrupt their nightmare to comfort them and they are unresponsive (eyes looking through you, unable to answer a question, large pupils), they are likely having a night terror
  • most children have a nightmare at some point during childhood

Night terrors

  • are thought to be extreme nightmares that have no memory of the event
  • often involves children screaming and thrashing about, appearing terrified
  • usually occurs during the first part of the night during our non-REM or deep sleep
  • children are NOT responsive to comforting from their caregiver and are unresponsive to questions
  • episodes may last 10-30 minutes in length, often falling back asleep without memory of the event or vague feeling of distress
  • it is often harder for the caregiver to watch. Make sure your child is safe from harm, but avoid trying to wake them to stop it.
  • the body is “stuck” between arousal and deep sleep, called partial arousal, causing this disruption in sleep
  • less common, occurring in approximately 3% of children with the highest instance happening between ages 5-7 years, but can definitely happen in younger children and in rare instances can occur as young as 18 months.
  • more likely to occur if a family member has been impacted by terrors

What to do with nightmares?

  • Console and soothe your child to help them calm down. Assure them there is nothing to be frightened of. Help them return to sleep after they are calm.
  • During the daytime, explore if there is something they saw or if something is bothering them.
  • Keep your child from viewing inappropriate movies, shows or pictures.
  • Establish a relaxing and soothing bedtime routine.
  • Encourage them to sleep with a special blanket or stuffie, or allow them to sleep with an amber coloured night light.
  • Rehearse the dream with a different or silly ending several times to help change the ending of the night mare.

What to do with night terrors?

  • When night terrors occur, the best and only thing you can really do is stay close to them and patiently wait it out.
  • As with a typical bedroom environment, you will want to make sure that there is nothing that can harm them if they were to thrash about
  • If they are prone to having night terrors, tidy their floor space, lock windows and place a gate at the top of the stairs. Sometimes children will also sleepwalk
  • It is safe to wake the child after an episode if you want. Sometimes this can stop a night terror from reoccurring.
  • Establish a relaxing and soothing bedtime routine.
  • If they are occurring frequently and at predictable times during the night, try waking your child 30 minutes before the night terror typically occurs. This can help in breaking the cycle of occurrence, but cause a disruption in sleep.  

Having adequate sleep lessens the likelihood of the night terrors and nightmares happening in the first place. If your child’s night terrors or nightmares are occurring frequent enough to cause you concern, feel free to contact me as there may be some need to change something with their sleep.

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