Skip to the content

How to Respond to a Nightmare vs a Night Terror

I remember one night sitting downstairs watching tv shortly after putting my kids to bed, and all of a sudden, I heard my 3 year old son start to scream. I figured he was having a bad dream, so I ran upstairs to try and console him. I picked him up and held him while rocking him to try and calm him down. I quickly realized he was not calming down, and in fact it almost seemed like he was not awake at all. I wasn’t sure what to do. From everything I had read this seemed to look more like a night terror rather than a nightmare, and I knew that I was supposed to give him space during a night terror episode. However, everything within me wanted to hold him and comfort him and try to wake him up so that the screaming would stop. It was a very strange feeling that left me feeling helpless in the moment. After it was over, I remember immediately starting to research night terrors because I wanted to make sure to be prepared in in the future in case it ever happened again.

Both nightmares and night terrors are commonly seen in children, but they are very much two different experiences. So how do we distinguish between nightmares and night terrors and how should we go about handling them with our little ones?


Nightmares typically start after the age of 2 years old and occur during REM sleep, which happens towards the end of each sleep cycle. Nightmares are bad dreams and are typically a very scary experience to a child that they can often remember. Nightmares are often triggered by stress, usually from scary events they have seen or heard through stories, tv shows, or live in person.  It is also common to see nightmares occur in children that are sleep deprived. A sleep schedule that is inconsistent can lead to sleep deprivation which can lead to the occurrence of more nightmares.

One factor to keep in mind when distinguishing between a nightmare and a night terror is to look to see if your child is awake. A child typically wakes up completely from a nightmare, aware of their surroundings and looks for comfort in the form of a hug or cuddle. They also usually can recall their dream with details in the morning.   

When your child has a nightmare, the best thing you can do is to stay calm, offer some comfort for reassurance and let them know that they are safe and are in a safe space. You can stay with them until they feel calm and settled and even stay with them until they are back asleep.

Night Terrors

Night Terrors typically start after the age of 3 years old, however unlike nightmares, night terrors happen during non-REM sleep usually earlier in the night before midnight when our bodies are in between deep sleep and light sleep. 

During a night terror there is usually an episode of screaming, a child can have their eyes open or shut, can have rapid breathing, and can even get up and move around. Although this can be frightening to see as a parent, the child is actually not awake and will have no recollection of the episode because their brain is still asleep. Night terrors can be caused by stress, if a child is sick, trying a new medicine, or is she is overtired or sleep deprived. 

If a parent tries to hug or comfort their child during a night terror, the child will usually try and push them away. For this reason, it is best to give your child some space during a night terror. You will want to make sure and go check on him to make sure he is okay and safe, but keep the light low and try not to engage with your child too much until he starts to come out of a night terror unless he is being unsafe. If you child wakes up completely from a night terror remain calm and offer him some comfort while he gets back to sleep.

For most children, nightmares and night terrors are a part of normal development with no cause for concern, but to help limit these episodes it is important to have a consistent sleep schedule for your child. Having bedtime around the same time every night, and creating a relaxing, consistent bedtime and morning routine are things that will help minimize nightmares and night terrors.  

About the author

Amanda Medley

Why didn’t we try this sooner?! As we speak he is sound asleep in his crib – and has been since 7:15 pm.

Karianne Wanggaard

Sleep Well Sleep Specialists

Don't go through another night of bad sleep.

Contact us to schedule your FREE 15-minute sleep evaluation!

Working with Shannon, I went from 2-3 wake ups every night to 1 or 0. She aligned the plan with my preferred sleep cycle. She was always coaching, never judging. Shannon was great, I have referred MANY people to her! That's the best testament to her work that I can give.

Light window Image

Get Sleep Solutions Today

Don't waste another night not getting sleep. Contact us today and we help guide you to get your family sleeping through the night.