Nightmares? Night Terrors? What's the difference?
Copyright 2005 Wendy Owen
There is a huge difference between nightmares and night terrors. There is also a difference in the way they are best handled by the parent or carer.
A nightmare is an unpleasant or scary dream. Everyone dreams and everyone is capable of experiencing nightmares. Many of us have nightmares without even being aware of it. Nightmares occur more frequently in children than adults.
A night terror is not a dream but a more an altered sleep state (parasomnia). Adults rarely experience night terrors.
A child will nearly always wake up after a nightmare and will probably be distressed. You can comfort a child after a nightmare.
Night terrors do not wake a child up. Even though he or she may have their eyes open, they will not be awake and cannot recognize or communicate. Do not try to wake them up as they will become confused.
Children who have had a nightmare may resist going back to sleep because they are afraid. Sometimes they will want to come and sleep in your bed. This is ok if it just happens occasionally
After a night terror, children will probably settle down fairly quickly. Just stay with them until then in case they try to get up and hurt themselves.
Nightmares almost always occur later in the night during the light stages of REM (rapid eye movement) sleep.
Night terrors happen earlier in the night during deep non-REM or delta sleep. They are unlikely to happen after the first 4 hours.
Children will usually remember a nightmare in the morning, especially if it is recurring.
Night terrors are usually completely forgotten.
Both nightmares and night terrors can be alarming for parents but are not in themselves harmful. Both are by products of an active developing mind. Night terrors should only be a concern if they last longer than 30 minutes or are accompanied by other unusual behavior such as jerky movements or stiffening of the body.
Make sure your child is not overtired, this is a leading cause of night terrors. Make sure they go to bed and get up at the same time of the day or night. This helps establish a healthy sleep pattern.
Nightmares can be caused by something that is worrying your child. Try to get them to talk about their fears and reassure them during the day.
Another cause of nightmares could be separation anxiety. Children's survival instinct causes this fear of abandonment. Make sure they know they are safe and secure.
Sleepwalking can occur during or after night terrors and is tied to the same deep phase of sleep. Sleepwalking on it's own isn't usually a cause for alarm, but the potential for accident of injury makes it a risky activity!
If you know or even suspect that your child is a sleepwalker, make sure there are no traps they can walk into such as stairs or open windows.
If you feel there is something about your child's sleep that is unusual or abnormal, see your physician. Parental intuition can be very accurate!
For more information on child sleep or baby sleep visit
The author Wendy Owen has had unlimited experience with sleep disturbances and sleep problems in children and adults