Nightmares vs. Night Terrors: What’s the Difference?

Learn what you can do when your child gets one or the other

Learn what you can do when your child gets one or the other

Parents often ask how to tell the difference between a nightmare and a night terror. While both can be disturbing for parents, there are differences between the two, including what parents can do to help.

Nightmares may be very common for preschoolers, but for parents they can seem anything but routine. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), children ages 3 to 6 are particularly prone to nightmares because this is the age when they start developing normal fears, are afraid of the dark and have an active imagination. According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, up to 50 percent of young children have nightmares that cause them to wake up their parents.

“Experiencing nighttime fears is a normal developmental stage that starts around age 2,” says Matilda Remba, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic in Mission Valley. “Preschoolers have a vivid imagination and are also beginning to understand that there are things out there in the world that can hurt them.” 

How parents can help

Nightmares often occur during the second half of the night, when dreaming is most intense. Your child may wake up crying or feeling afraid and may have trouble falling back asleep.

If this is a common scenario in your home, try these recommendations from the AAP

  • Go to your child as quickly as possible
  • Assure them that you are there and will protect them
  • Encourage your child to tell you about the dream 
  • Keep on a dim light if that helps
  • Once your child is ready, encourage him or her to go back to sleep
  • See if there is something specific that is scaring your child, such as dark shadows, and make sure they are gone  

Dr. Remba also suggests letting your child sleep with a special blanket or stuffed animal for security, or creating a special kit to keep near your child’s bed and include such items as a flashlight and a favorite book. “Listen to your child’s fears and take them seriously,” she says.

Night terrors vs. nightmares

Nightmares should not be mistaken for night terrors, which occur during the deepest stages of sleep, early in the night, and are partial arousals from sleep and usually last 10 to 30 minutes. Indications that your child is experiencing a night terror, and not a nightmare, include:

  • Mumbling
  • Sweating, shaking or fast breathing
  • Eyes that are wide open
  • Screaming, kicking or thrashing
  • Not recognizing that you are there
  • Sitting up in bed with eyes wide open 

“Night terrors can be very upsetting for parents, but they are usually not a reason for concern. Your child will fall asleep as soon as the episode is over,” says Dr. Remba. “The fright of a night terror will probably persist more for parents who have watched their child experience it than your child, who will not remember it in the morning.”

To help your child during an episode:

  • Don’t try to wake your child
  • Speak calmly
  • Put yourself between your child and anything potentially harmful
  • Keep the child’s room safe by picking up toys on the floor before they fall asleep

“The best thing parents can do during a night terror is to wait it out,” says Dr. Remba. 

In addition, parents can help prevent them by:

  • Reducing your child’s stress
  • Establishing and maintaining a relaxing bedtime routine
  • Making sure your child is not overtired

If you are concerned about your child’s nightmares or night terrors, talk with your pediatrician.