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Nightmares vs. Night Terrors

While nightmares and night terrors may seem similar as they both occur during sleep and often result in your child crying out in the middle of the night, they are actually very different! Keep reading to find out the causes, differences, and how to help your child cope!


Nightmares occur during REM sleep (dream sleep at the end of a sleep cycle) and typically will occur during the second half of the night. Nightmares generally peak between ages 2-4 and while they may seem scary to both the child and parents, they are actually a very normal part of childhood development. At this age, your child has an ever-growing imagination and may have difficulty distinguishing between dreams and reality. Most children will wake feeling anxious or scared and will call out for comfort from parents. Children usually remember nightmares and are able to recall what happened or at least pieces of it. Around age 5, children are more able to understand the difference between dreams and reality, but may still need some reassurance.

Common Causes of Nightmares:

  1. Overtiredness from not sleeping well or sleep being off for several days/weeks

  2. Change or Stress from daily living such as moving to a new home, getting a new sibling, or upgrading to a big kid bed

How to Handle Nightmares:

  1. Early bedtime! If your child is overtired, early bedtimes of at least 15-30 minutes earlier are the best way to combat this. Do this for 3-4 days to help your child catch up on some much needed sleep!

  2. Introduce a lovey. If your child doesn’t have a lovey, offer an old t-shirt of Mom or Dad’s to bring some extra comfort.

  3. Talk about good dreams they can have before bed. As part of your bedtime routine, come up with some good, happy dreams that your child can think about before bed, like “Tonight, I will dream about riding a unicorn.” Or “Tonight, I will dream about playing soccer with_____.” Children have great imaginations! Using it to positively think about dreams can bring them a sense of control and security before falling asleep.

  4. Play in their bedroom during the day. A child having frequent nightmares, can sometimes become scared of their own room. Spend some time in their room during the day playing board games, reading, or using their imagination to come up with new, fun games. This will encourage them to feel more safe and comfortable at nighttime.

  5. Only discuss bad dreams if your child brings it up. While it is scary in the moment, in the morning your child may be less affected by the nightmare than you think. If they bring it up, walk them through it and remind them that it was only a dream. If it doesn’t come up, no need to bring it up!

AVOID: creating new sleep habits or going back to old sleep associations during this time.When your child wakes up scared, it’s tempting to want to crawl in bed with them and comfort until they fall asleep. Yes, please provide comfort to your child in the moment, however, we want to avoid creating a new sleep habit that will not be sustainable over time. If your child is struggling with returning to sleep, tell him/her you’ll be nearby and will check-in. If you promise to check-in, always follow through even if they’re already asleep. You want your child to know what the expectation is and feel secure knowing you will always follow through.

Night Terrors

Night terrors are far less common than nightmares, only occurring in 5% of children (more often in boys), but can be a very scary experience for parents. While nightmares occur during REM sleep (dream sleep) towards the end of the night, Night terrors occur during non-REM sleep and typically within 2 hours of falling asleep. Your child may scream out, sweat, appear anxious, and may even open their eyes, but will be unresponsive to parents trying to console them. Night Terrors are partial arousals, not dreams. While it may seem your child is awake, they are actually still sleeping and they will not remember or be able to recall the experience the next day. This experience is usually more traumatizing to the parents than the child.

Common Causes of Night Terrors:

  1. Overtiredness from not sleeping well or an inconsistent sleep schedule

  2. Genetics. Children are more likely to experience night terrors if either parent had them as a child

  3. Major changes in their sleep schedule or environment

How to Handle Night Terrors:

  1. Do not wake or interfere. While it is difficult to watch your child experience a night terror, it is important that you do not interfere or touch your child, as it can actually prolong the terror. See below for how to respond.

  2. Stay in the room and monitor to make sure they stay physically safe. Sometimes children can thrash or move around in an unsafe way during an episode. Stay next to your child and intervene if they become physically unsafe. Calmly reassure with your voice without waking (this will help you stay calm too) until your child relaxes.

  3. Move bedtime AT LEAST 30 minutes earlier. Sleep deprivation is the number one cause of night terrors. An early bedtime will help your child catch up on some much-needed sleep, as night sleep is the most restorative sleep for your child.

  4. Maintain a consistent sleep schedule. An unpredictable sleep schedule leads to overtiredness. Maintaining a consistent schedule will help keep your child’s body on track to be sure they are getting quality, restorative sleep. Not sure what sure what an age-appropriate sleep schedule would be for your child, let's connect!

  5. Do NOT discuss the terror in the morning. Your child will not remember the night terror, so there is no need to bring it up as it could cause your child more stress at bedtime.

How to Handle Frequent Night Terrors:

  1. Keep a sleep log to track how often the terrors occur and track the time and length of each occurrence.

  2. If terrors occur around the same time multiple times a week, try waking 15-minutes before the onset. Waking just enough to roll over or re-adjust and then allow them to return to sleep.

  3. If your child frequently experiences night terrors, you will want to discuss it with your pediatrician to make sure there are not any underlying conditions causing the arousals such as apnea, trauma, illness, or even side effects from medication.

If you are a parent struggling with frequent night wakings or need help with an age-appropriate sleep schedule, let’s connect! Contact me here to get started. I would love to work with you to help your family get the sleep you need!


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