Night Terrors Vs Nightmares In Your Young Child

As a parent, there is almost no faster way to feel instantly terrified and sad than when your child wakes up screaming in the middle of the night from a bad dream. For many children, they may just be experiencing a simple nightmare, but for others, it may be a true night terror and it is important to know the differences so you can help out in either way.


What Is The Difference Between Nightmares And Night Terrors In Children?

There are a few key differences between night terrors and nightmares that you should know about. The first is that night terrors tend to happen early on in the sleep cycle when the brain is transitioning from deep sleep to lighter sleep. Here are some other factors:


  • Your child may start to move or thrash or even get out of bed (sleep walk)
  • Screaming or even crying 
  • Their eyes may be open, but they are still technically asleep
  • Rapid breathing and heartbeat
  • Your child is disoriented or not aware of your presence (which means they are still asleep, though looking like they are awake)
  • They may not remember or be aware of the night terror episode in the morning. A nightmare is typically remembered and talked about by the child the next day


If your child is experiencing some of all of the above symptoms, then they may be having a night terror. A nightmare is less extreme in some ways. Nightmares tend to happen later on in the night and often your child will either not wake up from them, or abruptly wake up and need comfort to go back to sleep. A child having a night terror on the other hand will be disoriented should they wake up fully and tend to have a harder time falling back to sleep. 


What To Do If Your Child Is Having A Night Terror?

It is a natural first instinct to want to awaken your child and to comfort them instantly to help them “snap out of it,” but that might not be the best course of action. Here are some things you can consider when you see that your child is suffering from a night terror. 


  • Soothe them gently with soft quiet affirmations
  • Get close to them and hold them or comfort them physically
  • Don’t try to wake them unless absolutely necessary (if the episode lasts more than 45 minutes etc)
  • Make sure their bed is free from toys and other things that may injure the child if they thrash around
  • If they get up (sleep walk) then help guide them safely back to bed and avoid any dangerous obstacles


It is difficult to predict if or when your child will have a night terror, but it helps to be prepared for when it happens. One way to help cut down on the risk of night terrors is to prevent your child from becoming overtired and to have a regular and strictly scheduled bedtime routine. Have them eat, bathe, and go down for sleep and bedtime stories at the same time and in the same manner each day. A well rested child is less prone to night terrors, but they can still happen. 


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