Night Terrors vs Nightmares

Night Terrors
I remember the night so vividly. Panic flooded my body as I sat next to my three year old son. He was going through one of his frequent night terrors and at that very moment there wasn't anything I could do to stop him. He was screaming bloody murder, kicking his legs and flailing his arms in every direction.

I just sat there in fear.

Trying to stay calm. Trying to comfort him. Trying to hold him.

But nothing was calming him down. I just kept praying that he would stop.

Six minutes later he stopped. A moment of silence had passed. He grabbed his blanket, rolled over to his side and went back to sleep as if nothing had happened. I sat there disbelief. I couldn't move for a bit, fearful it would happen again and stunned at what I had just seen.

Throughout the years, I have personally worked with many parents who had been dealing with night terrors but experiencing it with your own child created an entirely new emotion. A common question that we get asked is what the difference between a night terror and a nightmare? Are they the same or completely different? After my sons episode, I wanted to gain a deeper understanding at finding ways to prevent these from happening with other children, describe the difference between the two, and give a solution on how to handle them when they do occur.

What is the difference between a night terror vs a nightmare?

  • Night terrors often happen the first half of the night...while a nightmare often happens the second half of the night.
  • With night terrors, your child isn't awake and has a difficult time being consoled...while nightmares you can help calm your child down quickly.
  • With night terrors, your child will not remember any details of what happened or the dream they had been going thru .... with a nightmare, your child can recall the content of his/her dream the next morning.
  • What do you do when one occurs?

  • With a nightmare, it's a good idea to console them. Reassure them that everything is ok and help tuck them back to sleep with one of their favorite stuffed animals or lovies.
  • With a night terror, take a deep breath and patiently wait it out. Make sure the room is safe so that when they begin thrashing around, they will not injure themselves. Once the episode is completed, make sure you wake them up from the sleep. Often times, a second or third night terror can happen soon after if they aren't awoken from their sleep cycle.
  • If your child's night terrors or nightmares occur frequent enough for you to be concerned, seek out advice from your pediatrician for a diagnosis.
  • How can you help prevent them from occurring frequently?

  • Turn off tv, iPads, or any highly stimulated devices up to two hours before bedtime or nap.
  • Make your house calming and soothing before bed.
  • Make sure you are getting your child to bed at an early time - the more overtired your child is, the more likely they will have a night terror or nightmare.
  • Keep your child's room nice and cool (anywhere between 68-72 degrees). The hotter the room, the harder it is to get comfortable.
  • Reduce or eliminate sugar, food dyes or gluten enriched foods from your child's diet.
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