Toddler Sleep

Night Terrors vs. Nightmares: Understanding the Differences and How to Deal with Them

Night terrors vs nightmares: understanding the difference and how to deal with them.

For parents, few things can be as distressing as witnessing their child’s sleep disrupted by frightening experiences. Night terrors and nightmares are common occurrences during childhood, but they can be perplexing and distressing to both children and their parents. In this blog, we’ll explore the differences between night terrors and nightmares, shed light on their causes, and provide guidance on how to handle these nighttime disturbances.

Nightmares: The Stuff of Bad Dreams

Nightmares are unsettling dreams that can evoke fear, anxiety, or other strong emotions. They typically occur during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the stage of sleep when most dreaming takes place. Here are some key characteristics of nightmares:

  1. Dream Content: Nightmares involve vivid and often disturbing dream content. Common themes include being chased, falling, or encountering frightening creatures or situations.
  2. Memory: Children usually remember nightmares upon waking. They can describe the dream’s details and express their feelings of fear or distress.
  3. Timing: Nightmares tend to happen in the second half of the night, during the deeper phases of sleep. This is when REM sleep is more prevalent.
  4. Recovery: After a nightmare, children may feel upset or anxious, but they typically calm down relatively quickly when comforted by a parent or caregiver.
  5. Frequency: Nightmares are relatively common during childhood and can occur occasionally. They are often triggered by stress, anxiety, or exposure to frightening media.

Night Terrors: The Mystery of Sleep

Night terrors, on the other hand, are a distinct sleep disorder that occurs during non-REM sleep, specifically during the transition from deep non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep. Here’s what you need to know about night terrors:

  1. Dream Content: Unlike nightmares, night terrors typically lack a coherent dream narrative. Children may appear agitated, but they are not experiencing a bad dream that can be recalled.
  2. Memory: Children who have night terrors usually have no memory of the episode. They may have a blank or confused look when awakened during a night terror.
  3. Timing: Night terrors tend to occur within the first few hours of falling asleep, during the initial non-REM sleep cycles.
  4. Recovery: After a night terror, children may be disoriented and inconsolable for a brief period. It can be challenging to wake them fully, and they may not respond to comfort.
  5. Frequency: Night terrors are less common than nightmares but can be recurrent, happening multiple times in a week or over several months.

Causes and Triggers

Understanding the causes and triggers of night terrors and nightmares is essential for addressing and preventing these disturbances:


  • Stress and Anxiety: Stressful events, changes, or anxiety can contribute to nightmares.
  • Frightening Media: Exposure to scary movies, books, or images before bedtime can trigger nightmares.
  • Fever or Illness: High fever or illness may lead to nightmares in children.

Night Terrors:

  • Genetics: Night terrors can run in families, suggesting a genetic component.
  • Sleep Deprivation: Fatigue or irregular sleep patterns can increase the likelihood of night terrors.
  • Stress: Stressful life events or major transitions can trigger night terrors.

Managing Nightmares and Night Terrors


  • Comfort and Reassurance: When a child has a nightmare, comforting them and providing reassurance can help ease their fears.
  • Limit Frightening Content: Be mindful of media content before bedtime, and avoid exposure to scary images or stories.
  • Establish a Bedtime Routine: Creating a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine can reduce anxiety and promote better sleep.

Night Terrors:

  • Safety First: During a night terror, focus on ensuring your child’s safety. Gently guide them back to bed if they wander.
  • Limit Stress: Maintain a consistent sleep schedule and minimize sources of stress in your child’s life.
  • Avoid Overstimulation: Limit activities or stimuli close to bedtime to prevent night terrors.


Nightmares and night terrors may be unsettling, but they are usually a normal part of childhood sleep. By understanding the differences between the two and identifying potential triggers, parents can provide the appropriate support and comfort to help their child navigate these nighttime disturbances. If night terrors or nightmares persist and significantly impact a child’s well-being, consider consulting with a pediatric sleep specialist for additional guidance and solutions. Ultimately, with patience and care, most children outgrow these sleep disturbances and continue to enjoy peaceful and restorative nights.

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