The difference between Night Terrors and Nightmares

The difference between night terrors and nightmares

Nightmares and night terrors can be confusing. If you’ve never experienced a night terror in the flesh, you may think it’s just a nightmare that terrifies your child. But they are actually two distinct occurrences that differ in cause and treatment. Knowing the difference between the two is the key in determining the best way to handle them.

Here I’ll describe both nightmares and night terrors, outline the differences and give you some tips on how to address the possible underlying causes and help stop the episodes. Because everyone needs a good night’s sleep!


Nightmares can be considered very bad dreams. They occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, which happens most often near the end of our sleep period. When children have a nightmare, they will seek comfort on waking from their disturbing dream and recognize you upon seeing you. They are able to recall the nightmare, and for this reason it can take awhile for them to fall back to sleep and get the scary thoughts out of their minds.

Nightmares are very common and are part of normal development. Their occurrence often peaks around two to three years of age when children have rich imaginations and trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Nightmares are, of course, common after difficult events or when children are re-living a trauma.

Night Terrors

Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are classed as parasomnias (simply put, an undesired occurrence during sleep). Unlike nightmares where the dreamer wakes up and remembers the details, a child who has a night terror episode remains asleep.

Having experienced night terrors with both of my children, the easiest way to describe them is to imagine a child possessed (perhaps without the head spinning).  When a child is experiencing a night terror he or she may sit up and scream, whimper, thrash around or appear anxious and try to get away from “something”. The child is unlikely to recognize you when you approach and is often inconsolable. There may also be sweating and/or a racing heartbeat. Rest assured, these incidents are often more upsetting for the parent than they are for the child, as children do not usually remember them.

Night terrors occur during deep sleep and usually occur in the first half of the night. They are not bad dreams. Because they do NOT occur during REM/dream sleep (where your body undergoes partial paralysis), a child experiencing a night terror is often more physical. They can follow you out of the room or try and run away from you. However, because they are also inconsolable, trying to hug or comfort them can often make the episode worse. These night terror episodes usually last between five and twenty minutes and then subside.

Your child is more likely to have night terrors if a parent or relative also experienced night terrors or sleep walking as a child. The most common cause of night terrors is sleep deprivation or extreme tiredness, or a disturbance in a child’s sleep patterns—like travelling to different time zones, a new home disrupting routines or a later bedtime. However, extreme physical activity and/or stress on the body like illness or fever can also trigger an episode, as can sleep apnoea or restless leg syndrome.

Night Terrors vs Nightmares

The following outlines the difference between nightmares and night terrors:




Night Terrors
Frequently happen in the early hours of the morning Often happen in the first half of the night
Occur during REM sleep Occur during deep sleep
Child recognises you when they wake Child doesn’t recognise you when having a night terror
Child may be afraid initially but settles with your assistance and touch. Not easily consoled and comforting them can make it worse
Child may toss and turn in bed during a nightmare, but is awake before they call for you. Can get out of bed, move, and have their eyes open but are still asleep during a terror. It is hard to “snap them out of it”.
Seemingly unrelated to family history. No genetic or hereditary component. There appears to be a hereditary component. a family history of terrors or sleep walking is common.
Can be triggered by something scary they have seen or heard, or trauma. Often unrelated to anything “scary” that has been seen or heard
Can increased if sleep deprived Brought on or triggered by sleep deprivation, fever or physical overtiredness
A nightmare is over relatively quickly, but can take a while to get back to sleep. Night terrors may last 5-20 minutes on average, but a child will then go back to sleep very quickly (straight way) when the terror is finished.
A chid will likely remember details from a nightmare (but can also forget them) A child will have no recollection of any night terror (as they are asleep when they occur).
Nightmares are scary for the child Night terrors are scary for the parents


Tips to combat nightmares

So you’ve established it’s a nightmare. If you want to help reduce the number of nightmares your child has, consider these tips:

  1. Avoid scary movies or books before bed.
  2. Don’t play scary games.
  3. Help your child get enough sleep. Sleep deprivation won’t necessarily cause nightmares, but can increase them. Make sure you know how much sleep is recommended for your child.
  4. Check with your doctor or paediatrician to make sure your child is not on any medication that might be interfering with his or her night sleep.
  5. Be cautious not to over dramatise the event and make it worse. Children can pick up on your response and feed off it, so keep cool and don’t give it too much attention.
  6. Quickly reassuring your child and letting them go back to sleep can be the best recovery method.

Tips to handle night terrors

If you’re concerned that your child is experiencing night terrors, the most important thing is to ensure they are getting enough sleep. If you’re unsure how much sleep your child should be getting, check out the recommendations in my blog: How much sleep does your child REALLY need. These other tips can also help:

  1. Monitor your child but avoid interfering, as this can worsen the episode.
  2. Make sure your child is physically safe during the night terror.
  3. Keep a regular sleep schedule and earlier bedtime for him or her.
  4. Don’t talk about the terror with your child in the morning.
  5. Ensure appropriate medical attention is sought if you suspect fevers, illness or sleep apnoea.
  6. If your child is having night terrors two to three times a weeks, and they always seem to occur at the same each night (e.g. always 2.5 hours after going to sleep), try the following:
  • Keep a sleep log to track your child’s sleep.
  • Wake your child 10 minutes prior to the time he usually has an episode. Doing this every night for 7-10 nights in a row, while ensuring enough sleep, will most likely see the episodes reduce.

As night terrors and nightmares differ, so does their treatment. It helps to clearly understand the difference between these phenomena and once you know what you’re dealing with, you’ll be able to help your child more effectively.

If you need a hand with your child’s sleep to reduce the impact of night terrors or nightmares, please make contact or book in a FREE 15 minute initial phone call. You’ll also find more sleep tips on Facebook and Instagram. And sign up to my newsletter, if you haven’t already.

Has your child experienced night terrors? How did you handle them? I’d love to know.

Kim xx