Nightmares and Night terrors whats the difference?

Nightmares and Night terrors whats the difference?

Nightmares and Night terrors whats the difference?

Night terrors

Night terrors is a common word parents use to explain crying episodes their children are having, the reality is they don't usually occur until toddler hood around 3-4 years of age, and they aren't that common.

What exactly is a night terror?

A night terror is very different to a nightmare, and is usually characterized by a child screaming, thrashing around, crying in their bed, or jump out of their bed, most commonly in the first part of the night.

Your child will likely not recognize you despite their eyes being open, and if you try to comfort them during an episode and will be generally non responsive. This is because technically, they are still asleep.

Crying and thrashing observed in a night terror occurs when your child moves abruptly from deep, non REM sleep, to partially awake. Your toddler is not fully awake, or fully asleep, and they'll have no memory of the episode in the morning. If they do, it was a dream or something else, not a night terror.

Night terrors usually last up to 15 minutes and can occur more than once a night, but usually in the first part of the night during the first episode of slow wave sleep.

Why do night terrors occur?

Sleepwalking and night terrors are considered to be manifestations of the same family of sleep disorders.

It has been proposed that a sudden arousal from non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep is the cause of these disorders.

Some genetic factors can predispose a child to night terrors such as the ability to sustain slow wave sleep.

Other environmental factors play a role in night terrors occurring, and these include stress and anxiety, over tiredness, excessive exercise or play before bed, too much environmental stimuli, or endogenous stimuli which is things like (fever, illness, full bladder). 

What to do during a night terror?

Unfortunately science tells us that children having a night terror don't usually respond to verbal cues or being comforted, or even your attempts to wake them up.

(I can attest to this one, my son walks aimlessly around the house crying when he has a full bladder and goes to bed exhausted from skiing...)

Your child won't recall the night terror and they are usually not actually scared unlike a nightmare.

There is no treatment needed for night terrors except to keep the child safe as they can thrash, kick, and walk or run around the house. There is no need for medication or a sleep study.

If your child isn't sick, or toilet training, over tiredness is often the culprit and going to bed earlier can help ease the symptoms of night terrors, especially on busy days or during times of illness.

Try to reduce stress and anxiety by having a nice relaxing bed time, and give your child plenty of wind down time to prepare to sleep.

If you're struggling to get your toddler to sleep try our online sleep program with proven results.

What about nightmares?

Nightmares are also common in children over 3. Under 3 children generally speaking haven't developed the imagination to have nightmares, and any crying at night is more commonly a baby or toddler moving from one sleep phase to another and experiencing confusional arousal if over tired.

Nightmares unlike night terrors occur during REM sleep, and come with a strong feeling of terror, fear, and distress.

Watching scary movies, or clips on the iPad or even reading scary books can all contribute to nightmares.

Try talking to your child about their night mares in the morning, comfort them at night, and see if you can pinpoint the stressor contributing to the bad dreams.

Try our animal meditation before bed to ensure your child goes to sleep in a peaceful relaxing way, thinking about positive feelings, not anxiety and stress. This meditation is supported by many medical professionals as a period of mind fullness and is fully explained in the toddler sleep program.

Night terrors and nightmares how to tell the difference?

Feature Sleep Terror Nightmare
Age of child May occur in toddlers – more common in school age Most common between 2.5-5 years
When they occur First few hours of the night Last few hours of the night
Sleep cycle During non REM – deep sleep During REM – light sleep
Consciousness Does not awaken Fully awakens
Activity during May bolt from bed and dart around the room Usually stays in bed
Memory of event No memory of the event at all Vivid details recalled
Comfort needed none Reassured by brief comfort
Parent help Hands off Hands on
Danger of injury High possibility

Usually none


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