Difference Between Night Terrors and Nightmares

Difference Between Night Terrors and Nightmares

16 July 2022 • Words by Karla Pretorius 3 mins

​​Most children experience some nightmares during their childhood. Many children also experience night terrors, a sleep disturbance that can be even more upsetting for both the child and the parents. It is important to understand the difference between night terrors and nightmares so that you can better help your child if they experience either one. 

What are nightmares? 

A nightmare is a type of dream that can cause fear, terror, or anxiety. Nightmares usually occur during the later stages of sleep (REM sleep), which is when most dreams occur. Many children have nightmares about monsters, ghosts, witches, or other scary creatures. Some children have nightmares about things that have happened to them during the day, such as a bad fall or a fight with a friend. Most nightmares are a normal part of childhood and are not a cause for concern. In rare cases, nightmares may signify a more serious problem, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What are night terrors? 

Night terrors, which typically occur in children between 3 and 8 years old, are often more intense than nightmares and can be more upsetting. Unlike nightmares, night terrors usually happen in the early stages of sleep (non-REM sleep), often within the first two hours. A child may suddenly sit up in bed and scream or cry out. They may be sweating and breathing fast, and have a fast heart rate. They may look awake, but they are in fact still asleep, so it may be difficult to calm them down. Night terrors can last from a few minutes to up to 45 minutes. After a night terror, a child usually returns to deep sleep and does not remember what happened, whereas with nightmares most children remember the details of their dream.

​​What causes nightmares and night terrors? 

Most nightmares are the result of stress or anxiety and can be caused by a wide range of worries or upsetting experiences. Night terrors are often caused by sleep deprivation or a change in sleep schedule.

​​​​How can I help my child if they have a nightmare or night terror? 

If your child has a nightmare, you can comfort them and help them calm down. You can also try to help them understand that it was just a dream and that they are safe. If your child has a night terror, you should not try to wake them up. This can make the night terror worse. You should try to stay calm, speak quietly, and comfort them until the night terror is over. Most nightmares and night terrors are a normal part of development and no treatment is needed for them. However, you should talk to your doctor if your child has nightmares or night terrors frequently, as they can signify a more serious problem, such as sleep apnea, sleep disorders, or PTSD. 

According to Leung et al. (2020), most children will stop experiencing night terrors by late adolescence, which is a relief. However, it’s a good idea to keep track of the frequency and severity of both night terrors and nightmares. Parents can also focus on pre-sleep routines that are calming and consistent. We use Moshi’s sleep stories and meditations every night to help my partner’s children calm down before bedtime. Click here to get access to Goldie and the Tree of Mindfulness

It is always a good idea to follow your parental instincts. If you feel your child is experiencing night terrors or nightmares and you are concerned, speak with your pediatrician. They could recommend a sleep specialist who can help implement strategies that could help your child. Another important reminder is not to blame yourself—these are common experiences for children. The mere fact that you are reading these types of articles is indicative that you are an actively present caregiver. Take it easy on yourself too.  

Leung, A. K. C., Leung, A. A. M., Wong, A. H. C., & Hon, K. L. (2020). Sleep terrors: An updated review. Current Pediatric Reviews, 16(3), 176–182.

Karla Pretorius

A registered counselor with a MA in Psychology. Co-founder: AIMS Global & Leadership at: Augmental