The difference between nightmares and night terrors. Supporting your child when they’re scared.

Nightmares and night terrors

How do you know if your little one is experiencing nightmares or night terrors? Learn the signs to look for to help you recognise and identify what your child may be going through (as well as ways to reduce them occurring in the future).

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    In this blog you’ll learn all about the reality of your little one’s night time troubles and become informed and educated on how to manage/reduce the chances of these episodes occurring regularly.

    What’s the difference between a nightmare and a night terror?

    Let’s break it down and learn exactly what a nightmare is and what a night terror is.

    Although on the surface they look very similar (or even the same), there are quick and easy ways to distinguish the difference.


    What is a nightmare?

    • Characteristically occur from 2.5+ years of age. The most common contributors to nightmares include your child’s ever-growing imagination and trying to process their busy day-to-day lives. This being said, they can also coincide with dropping naps and have also been linked to becoming overtired.
    • They occur more commonly in REM (rapid eye movement) lighter phases of sleep and typically occur in the second half of the night (midnight through to 6:00/7:00am.
    • Children who experience a nightmare will wake upset, scared or afraid. The key word here is wake. A nightmare will in most cases wake your child from their sleep. They will be able to communicate what has scared them such as “monsters under my bed”.
    • Typically, a child will remember a nightmare occurring the next day. It could be either vaguely recalled or vividly recollected. They’re able to communicate what has happened in the nightmare or relay the nature of the storyline/ what they saw and understandably will usually need extra support to re-settle to sleep.

    How to help

    • Do your best to keep them comfortable in their own bed rather than bringing them into your bed.
    • During the day talk through and validate their feelings to help alleviate any worries or fears.
    • Chat about any potential triggering events that may give rise to nightmares.

    Expert Insight: You are your little one’s safe place and you would know from your own experience a nightmare feels extremely real. Your little one needs reassurance that:

    1. it was a bad dream
    2. it wasn’t real
    3. it’s over now
    4. they’re safe.

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    Night Terrors

    What is a Night Terror

    • Occur from 2.5+ years and are more common in NREM sleep (that’s sleep prior to midnight).
    • Your little one may wake suddenly and be frightened but appear non-responsive.
    • They may be sitting up, thrashing around and inconsolable but they’re not actually awake.
    • Night terrors can last from 15 up to 30 minutes and tend to happen more frequently when toddlers are overtired or an illness is approaching (also more common with high temps).

    Expert Insight: Night terrors can be extremely disturbing for parents to witness but your toddler will have no recollection of the event and when it finishes, they pretty much “snap” out of it, lay down and return to sleep almost like nothing has happened.

    How to help

    • Your role as a parent is to ensure your little one is safe throughout the course of the night terror i.e. that they don’t hurt themselves by falling out of bed or get stuck between cot railings.
    • Always ensure the bedroom and cot/bed environment is safe.
    • Do not try to wake them or stop the process as this will frighten them more – remember they’re not actually awake.

    Most children grow out of night terrors however if they’re becoming regular or you are concerned, consult your trusted healthcare professional.

    What’s the best and easiest way to tell if your little one’s experiencing a nightmare or a night terror?

    The main difference between nightmares and night terrors is nightmares will usually wake your child, they’re able to recall the nightmare and talk about it right away or the next morning.

    With a night terror your child doesn’t remember what happened and although they may be displaying signs of being awake (sitting up and talking) they don’t wake up. If it’s a night terror remember to resist trying to rouse your child from the episode.

    How do you handle nightmares and night terrors?

    The best way to handle them is to try and avoid them altogether. (Easier said than done I know) and the brain is an incredible organ that still isn’t completely understood by even those who study it. Some things are simply out of our control.

    Best ways to stop and prevent nightmares and night terrors occurring

    1. Stick to a regular bedtime routine and age-appropriate bedtimes (this will reduce the chances of becoming overtired initially).
    2. Talk to your child to see if anything is bothering them.
    3. Limit screen time usage – especially in the lead 3-4 hours prior to bedtime. Excited and hyperactive minds often struggle to wind down/switch off in the evening.
    4. Offer verbal and physical reassurance in their cot/bed.

    Next time you hear the tell-tale screams of fright coming from your little one’s room, head into the room feeling confident you can assess the situation, identify the type of episode it is as well as provide the support your little one needs in that moment.

    Find more toddler sleep tips here.

    More one-on-one sleep help is always available for you as you navigate this wild ride called parenthood. Book a discovery call to find out how we can work one-on-one together to begin creating healthy sleep habits for your family.


    Kelly Martin Sleep Consultant

    Helping babies get a good nights sleep

    Our mission is to empower parents with the knowledge and education about how they can help their little one develop and maintain healthy sleep habits. Are you ready to regain your sleep?

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