Nightmares Or Night Terrors? How To Tell The Difference.

Nightmares or Night Terrors
Victoria Bermudez

Victoria Bermudez

As a child sleep consultant, I often talk with families whose children are experiencing night wakes. Usually, those night wakes are pretty straightforward (though not easy to cope with!) – but sometimes, they’re a little more complex, or downright stressful. Many parents will ask, is my child experiencing nightmares or night terrors? How do I even tell the difference?

Nightmares and night terrors are a common part of childhood, and many children will experience either one or both at some point. It can be hard to tell the difference between nightmares and night terrors, but they are not the same and there are some key characteristics that can help you determine which one your child is experiencing.


Most of us know what these are because we’ve all had (at least) one! A nightmare is simply a bad dream. After a nightmare, your child might wake up, cry out, appear scared and they may even be able to tell you what the dream was about. The key distinction of a nightmare vs. a night terror is that your child is awake afterward. They can maintain eye contact and hold a conversation. They know what is happening.

When they happen: Usually in the second half of the night, during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Nightmares are common for kids ages 3-6.

Why they happen: Dreaming is a normal part of sleep! The average person has 3-5 dreams a night. Some external factors can make these dreams scary, or unpleasant.

Some external factors that can contribute to nightmares are:

  • stress or anxiety
  • overtiredness
  • recent trauma
  • some movies or tv shows
  • some medications
  • some medical conditions

What To Do At Night:

At the moment – offer comfort to your child, the dream is very real to them, and they feel scared. Even if your child is an established independent sleeper, there is no need to leave them alone with their fears. Avoid making a big fuss, talking about the dream too much, or trying to rehash the details right then, but stay receptive to what they tell you. Allow your child to feel heard without asking a lot of questions – try to remember they need your help to co-regulate so if you are calm and warm in your response your child can calm down more easily.

Example: “I hear that you feel scared, you had a bad dream. I’m right here, you are safe. Do you want a hug?”

When your kiddo is calm, it is time to leave the room again so your little one can go back to sleep. Remain calm, cool, and confident as you leave. Your child looks to you to understand how to feel about a situation so if you look scared or stressed while you’re leaving the room, they will not feel comfortable with this either.

What To Do During The Day:

In the morning, don’t bring it up unless your little one does. Just like adults, sometimes we don’t remember our dreams so your child may not even remember it in the morning.

If your little one does remember their dream and wants to talk about it, hear them out, validate their feelings and reassure them that the dream wasn’t real, even if it felt real to them.

If your child gets fixated on the dream and needs help moving past it, this article has more tips on how to work through fears during the day.

Other Tips To Help With Nightmares:

  • Offering more sleep in the form of an earlier bedtime may help as sleep deprivation can both cause and be caused by nightmares.
  • Be mindful of what TV shows or movies your little one is watching as sometimes the most unassuming characters can be scary to small children. My son, Logan, told me about a nightmare with a “kitty” chasing him and I remembered that we’d recently watched The Lion King. He was terrified of Scar!

Night Terrors

Night terrors are often confused for nightmares or night wakes, but they’re very different from both of these things. They’re also not fear-based, despite the name. Night terrors actually happen during deep sleep, so your child is not even aware of what is happening because they don’t actually wake up. Your child will not remember a night terror the next morning.

During a night terror, your child might sit up and scream, flail or thrash around, and appear terrified. If you attempt to comfort your child, they will not look at you or engage but probably look right through you. They may even resist being touched or become agitated if you attempt to calm them.

When they happen: Usually in the first half of the night (before midnight) when the deepest sleep takes place. Night terrors are most common in ages 3-8 but can happen as early as 15 months. Most children outgrow them by adolescence.

Why they happen: Night terrors are caused by an over-arousal of the central nervous system during sleep.

Some factors that can contribute to night terrors are:

  • overtiredness
  • food allergies/sensitivities, especially food colorings & additives
  • fever or illness
  • stress
  • some medicines
  • sleeping in a new or noisy environment
  • a recent transition or change
  • not meeting sleep needs
  • an irregular sleep schedule
  • sleeping with a full bladder
  • family history of night terrors/parasomnias

What To Do At Night:

With a true night terror, less is more. Trying to intervene, wake your child up, or comfort them may actually prolong the night terror.

While your child is having the night terror, you can sit near them to make sure they stay safe, and sometimes you can even help your child lay back down. Lots of physical contact might agitate them and soothing or comfort won’t help.

What To Do During The Day:

Nothing! Your child won’t remember the night terror so talking with them about it may actually cause unnecessary stress or fears at bedtime or during the night. It is best to just keep it to yourself and try to figure out the cause so you can try to prevent them moving forward.

Other Tips To Help With Night Terrors:

  • If your child is experiencing regular night terrors, more sleep is usually the answer. An earlier bedtime will probably help tremendously, as the deepest and most restorative sleep happens in the first half of the night.
  • Consider creating a food, sleep and activity log so that you can attempt to find patterns and identify the cause.
  • If night terrors are chronic and happen around the same time each night, sometimes it can help to wake them about 15 minutes prior to this time for about a week, to disrupt their sleep cycles enough to interrupt the episode. This is really a last-resort solution.

With both nightmares and night terrors, it’s so important to try and identify and work through the root cause. It is always a good idea to visit your child’s pediatrician to discuss and rule out any potential medical concerns.

And as always, our team is always here to help! Schedule a discovery call to talk about your child’s sleep concerns and how we can get your whole family more sleep.

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