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Nightmares vs. Night TerrorsWhat's the difference?

Many times when a child is upset during the night, the culprit is often nightmares or night terrors. But they can be hard to distinguish if you don’t know how to tell the differences. Today, we’ll break it all down for you, so you have no doubt what is going on if your little one is experiencing either, plus some tips for what to do if they happen and even how to try to prevent them from happening!

Let’s dive in with some major differences between nightmares and night terrors:

1. Age of Occurrence

The age at which nightmares and night terrors first occur and for how long varies between these two types of sleep disturbances.

Nightmares: It’s unknown at what age babies can start to have bad dreams, or nightmares, since they usually require self-report to know for sure. Most sleep scientists agree that around age 2 years it is clear that toddlers experience bad dreams since they can be asked about why they woke upset, but it could be sooner (with some reports in babies as young as 6 months). They continue to be very common up to age 12, and continue throughout adulthood as well.

Night Terrors: While there can be considerable variation in the onset of night terrors, most commonly they arise between 3-5 years of age. This coincides with when the last nap is dropped, and relates to a common cause of night terrors for many children, which is overtiredness. Most children outgrow night terrors by age 12.

2. Frequency of Occurrence

How often nightmares and night terrors occur also varies.

Nightmares: Scary dreams are likely to happen quite frequently, especially given that humans have 4-6 dreams per night. So, it is possible for nightmares to happen several times per week (or even every night) for toddlers, children, and even adults.

Night Terrors: Night terrors tend to occur less frequently, usually only once or twice a week. For most children, it is even less often than that. Sometimes families may notice patterns of more frequent night terrors, especially following periods of sleep deprivation or stress.

3. When in the Night They Occur

One of the most telling signs is when during the night the negative sleep occurrence takes place.

Nightmares: Bad dreams occur during REM sleep, which is a stage of sleep that happens every 90 minutes or so throughout the night. During the first half of the night, we spend less time in REM sleep; however, during the second half of the night and especially toward wake time, we spend longer periods in REM sleep. Thus, it is most likely that children will awaken from nightmares during the second half of the night.

Night Terrors: Night terrors generally happen in deep stages of non-REM sleep, which are usually most likely during the first half of the night. Usually, it’s within the first 3-4 hours of the night (and many times, before parents even go to bed!).

4. Child’s Ability to Be Calmed and Consoled

Another telling sign is what happens during a nightmare or night terror and whether the child can be calmed or consoled.

Nightmares: During a nightmare, or bad dream, a child will wake from the dream upset and seeks out support. They are able to be consoled and reassured by their caregiver(s) and eventually the child can be put back to sleep.

Night Terrors: During a night terror, a child doesn’t actually wake up yet screams and cries, may be sitting or standing up, sweating, breathing hard and moving/thrashing around, and yet they are unaware a caregiver is nearby. Because of this, they cannot be consoled or soothed by their caregiver(s), and they often push them away, unaware they are even present. Once the night terror has passed (usually within a few minutes to an hour), the child resumes sleeping as if nothing has happened and generally never even wakes from the event.

5. Child’s Ability to Recall

Finally, the next day, a child’s ability to recall the event can be a tell-tale sign whether it is a nightmare or a night terror.

Nightmares: With nightmares, if a child wakes during or immediately after a bad dream, they are generally able to recall what they dreamed about, even if it is hard for them to describe. Many children will still remember the bad dream content the following day, if asked.

Night Terrors: With a night terror, because the child is in a very deep stage of sleep and never wakes from the night terror, they have no memory that it occurred if awakened to try soothing them (which is why it is generally recommended not to wake them) or if asked about it the next day.

Do either of these sound familiar to you? If so, both can be very hard to deal with as parents! The good news is that WeeSleep can help your family with either situation.

If your child is having nightmares, know that this is completely normal for all children! Generally, it is best to ask them about it, validate their feelings, and reassure them that dreams are not real and that they are okay and safe to go back to sleep. Ensure your child isn’t learning about scary or inappropriate content that can be a source of nightmares. Avoid using things like “monster spray,” searching their room, or other tactics that can create the belief that monsters or other scary dream content is real.

If your child is having night terrors, take some comfort in knowing that they do not affect your child (though they can be very alarming for parents!). To prevent night terrors, generally it is recommended that you ensure they are not overtired, as this can be a trigger for children who are prone to night terrors. If they are already occurring, the best thing you can do is not wake your child and just ensure they don’t cause any harm to themselves or others during the episode. If night terrors are occurring relatively frequently, WeeSleep can help ensure your child is getting the sleep they need and offer solutions for how to prevent the night terror from occurring based on your family’s specific situation.

Click here to book a free 15-minute consultation and get solutions for your family today.

Prepared by WeeSleep Chief Success Specialist Charlsie Myers, PhD, BCBACertified Pediatric Sleep Consultant