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Night Terrors Versus Nightmares and How to Help Your Child

Updated on April 19, 2012

Night terrors and nightmares are two very different things, and up until recently, I didn’t know the difference. My son is a year and six months old now and has been waking every so often crying or screaming. I always assumed that he was having nightmares. I started to worry when it looked as if he didn’t really respond to me when we woke him up, and he would often cry inconsolably, even when I tried to comfort him.

As the episodes grew more frequent, I decided to do an Internet search and imagine my surprise when I learned what was really going on. My son had been having night terrors. I’ve since learned what to do about it, and it’s helped a great deal. Let’s look at some of the differences between a nightmare and a night terror.

How to Recognize a Night Terror

  • A child will often ‘wake up’ screaming or crying when he or she is having a night terror, but won’t be truly awake. If a child is having a nightmare, he or she should wake up easily and calm down quickly.
  • The child won’t recognize his or her parents or will seem to look right through them while having a night terror.
  • It is difficult to wake the child fully during a night terror.
  • Night terrors often occur early in the night, and often happen within the first four hours of sleep.
  • A child won’t remember having a night terror, whereas he or she will most likely be able to recall having had a nightmare.

How to Deal with a Night Terror

There’s very little you can do when your child experiences a night terror, but knowing what to do, and what to avoid, can make it easier on your little one and yourself.

  • Most importantly, stay calm. The calmer you are, the calmer your child will be.
  • Don’t try to wake the child. Even if you succeed in waking him or her, it will cause even more upset.
  • It’s best to not scream at or shake the child. Doing this will make it worse and will not wake him or her up.
  • Stay with the child and hold him or her while the night terror occurs. Children may be able to hear us while they’re having night terrors, so talking in a soothing and calm voice may help them even if they are not fully awake.
  • Children may still experience what’s going on around them to an extent while they have night terrors. Turn on the lights in the room so that your child won’t be confused or upset by any shadows or unknown objects.
  • Night terrors usually last for between 5 and 30 minutes, and once the child calms down, he or she can be put back to bed and should sleep soundly afterward.

How to Prevent Night Terrors

There are a few theories as to why night terrors occur, and there may be ways to help prevent it from happening. It’s been said that night terrors are more likely when a child is overtired or if his or her usual routine had been broken during the day. I’ve noticed that as well, so ensuring that my son has his naps during the day, goes to bed at his usual time, and sticks to his usual routine have helped a lot.

Waking the child up for five minutes or so just before the time he or she usually has a night terror will interrupt the sleep cycle. Doing this for a few nights in a row may help stop night terrors from occurring altogether.

If the steps above do not help, it may be best to speak to your Doctor about treatment options. Sleep medications may be prescribed for a short period of time if the night terrors are very frequent.

Night terrors are also more likely to happen in children between the ages of 2 and 6 years but can start earlier. Most children outgrow night terrors eventually, so that in itself is a consolation. Night terrors can be just as upsetting and scary for parents as they are for our children, but learning what to do when it happens will make things a little easier.


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    • Emeraldgreen21 profile image

      Atell Rohlandt 5 years ago from South Africa

      Thank you for your comment Shea. I'm glad to hear you found the hub helpful. I didn't understand the difference either, but learning about it makes a real difference. Hopefully more people will read this and find better ways to deal with the situation when their child experiences a night terror.

    • shea duane profile image

      shea duane 5 years ago from new jersey

      I hope a lot of people read this. My son has night terrors andGood hub. people don't understand the difference between what he experiences and a nightmare.

    • Emeraldgreen21 profile image

      Atell Rohlandt 5 years ago from South Africa

      Thank you Prossylink. Controlling what your child watches can definitely help keep him or her calmer, especially before bedtime.

    • Prossylink profile image

      Prossylink 5 years ago from Nairobi

      Nice hub,

      Another tip can be controlling what your child watches on television or over the internet. Scary content can lead to nightmares.