Nightmares vs. Night Terrors

Clients commonly ask me what to do about night terrors. Witnessing a night terror is quite traumatizing for parents -- it seems so unfair for a child to go through something that seems truly terrifying. The first thing to figure out is whether your child is having a nightmare or a night terror:


  • Happens during REM sleep (dream sleep, during which muscles are temporarily paralyzed)
  • Can occur any time of night 
  • Child wakes up and seems scared; he can be reassured (at least somewhat) by a parent or sibling

Night Terror

  • Happens during non-REM sleep (muscles have movement)
  • Typically occurs in the first few hours of the night
  • Child doesn't seem to see his parents, even if parents are actively trying to talk to or help the child

If it seems as though your child is truly having a night terror, here are my tips for preventing and handling the terrors.

Is your child having a nightmare or a night terror? If it's a night terror, how can you make it stop?! Check out this blog post for tips about how to put those night terrors to bed.

How to Prevent Night Terrors

Night terrors usually have two specific causes: genes and overtiredness. We can't change genes, but we can help prevent overtiredness. If your child is frequently having night terrors, consider putting him down for bed earlier -- perhaps even just 15 minutes will do the trick. However, if he continues having the terrors, move bedtime earlier again. Nap refusal can also contribute to the overtiredness, so please reach out to me if you need an idea of an age-appropriate schedule for naps and/or bedtime. 

One other thing to keep track of is if there is any particular activity that is linked with the terrors. For instance, are you always reading the same bedtime story on the nights where your child has a terror? Do terrors always occur when a particular TV show has been watched that day? Does your child have a terror on any day they see or hear about bats? One child even had terrors linked with a particular story about Santa Claus because the story got him so excited! Look for any consistencies you can find linked to the terror, and if you find one, be mindful of how it affects your child. However, keep in mind that an earlier bedtime is usually enough to eliminate the terrors.

How to Handle Night Terrors When They Come Up

When your child has a night terror, it is much more frightening for you than it is for him. If it is a true night terror, he may scream and flail, but he will not recall the incident in the morning because he is actually sleeping while it occurs.

I recommend letting the terror play out without trying to awaken your child. If you wake him up, you'll disrupt his sleep, which is unnecessary in the given circumstance. Additionally, some children are frightened if they are woken and told that they were just screaming and flailing, as they do not recall taking these actions. It's a bit unnerving for a child to learn that he has done something he doesn't recall doing.

Instead of trying to wake him, simply watch him to ensure that he doesn't hurt himself or anyone else. You'll be amazed at how quickly children can transition from flailing and screaming to once again sleeping peacefully.

Sleep Apnea

One more thing that contributes to night terrors is sleep apnea. If your child seems to be getting an appropriate amount of sleep but is still experiencing night terrors, check for mouth breathing or snoring while they sleep. Children who have sleep apnea get much more disrupted sleep, so they are more likely to be overtired, thus making them more prone to night terrors.

It's never fun to witness a night terror, but you can quickly rid yourself of this issue in most cases by simply getting your child a bit more sleep. Contact me if you need help figuring out how to get your child the sleep he needs.