Nightmare or night terror?

Nightmares and night terrors can be very confusing. By knowing the difference between the two of them, you will know what to do and how to handle them better.


From a certain age you may notice that your child has more nightmares, which it totally normal. Of course it can be quite challenging when your child has many nightmares and keeps calling for your at night. Between 2 and 3 years old, nightmares start to happen more frequent. You might have noticed this with your child?

Around 2-3 years, children start to fantasize a lot and they have a BIG imagination. Often it is still very difficult to distinguish between fantasy and reality. When your child wakes up after a nightmare and cries, they normally recognize you and react on your presence. It might take awhile before they fall asleep again. Normally they can remember the dream.

It’s more likely for your child to have nightmares during stressful situations or when something has happened that day. For example, starting daycare, moving, change from baby bed to big bed. It can also be because of smaller things that we don’t really notice ourselves, like a loud barking big dog. This can make a big impression on such a little child and could scare them.

When parents are feeling stressed and behave differently than normal, your child will most likely notice this. Little changes can already have an effect on your child. When a child says something is scary, there’s a pretty good chance that we as adults don’t think it’s scary. Once you know what the fear is, let your child know you’re taking it, and him/her, seriously.

“Even happy, balanced children have nightmares every now and then”

How to avoid nightmares

Completely avoiding nightmares will obviously be impossible, but there are a few things you could do to reduce the possibilities of nightmares. For example:

  • No scary stories, videos or games before bedtime.
  • Best not to watch TV 2 hours before bedtime as the blue light has an effect on sleep quality and can increase the possibility of a nightmare. For more info about blue light, have a look here: Blue light – Why is it keeping your child up?
  • Give your child enough attention and cuddles during the day so they feel loved and secure.
  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep during the day, or quiet time if your child doesn’t nap anymore. A lack of sleep can increase the possibility of a nightmare. 
  • No sugary foods before bed. Sugary foods are likely to disrupt your sleep.
  • Set a regular sleep schedule and take enough time for a long and relaxing bedtime ritual.
  • If your child is on medication, it would be a good idea to discuss it with your pediatrician and ask if they can affect their sleep.
  • If your child often has nightmares, react quickly and give them the security that everything is ok. Like this, they will learn faster that it is just a dream and that you as parents are always close should it happen again.

Get advice from specialists or pediatricians should you worry about frequent nightmares.

What’s a night terror?

A night terror is something completely different than a nightmare. Maybe it seems similar at the beginning, loud crying and your child is very scared. During a night terror, a child is often inconsolable and often does not recognize or react to your presence. Some children are really angry / aggressive or even seem to be afraid of you. If you try to comfort your child, they will not respond or get even more angry. Night terrors often last 5 to 25 minutes. Your child does not remember the night terrors.

Night terrors often happens within two/three hours after falling asleep. They are not nightmares and they do not occur in dream sleep. Many parents are worried and fear that night terrors may indicate psychological problems. However, this is not the case. Often a night terrors happen during a big developmental leap.

Did you often have night terrors as parents? Then there is a high probability that your child will also have some. If one of the parents has a sleep disorder, such as sleepwalking, chances are higher that your child will have night terrors. The most common cause of night terrors is lack of sleep or a disturbance in the child’s sleep pattern, e.g. travel, time difference or even fever and sleep apnea.

What to do during a night terror

Many parents experience night terrors as something very uncomfortable because there is so little you can do when it happens. Many parents don’t know what to do either. So what can you do:

  • Watch your child closely should it have a night terror, but avoid intervening. That could only make the situation worse.
  • Make sure your child is safe and can’t fall out of bed.
  • Have a good day/sleep rhythm.
  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep during the day, or quiet time if your child doesn’t nap anymore. A lack of sleep can increase the possibility of a nightmare. Get your child to bed a little earlier, even if it’s only 30 minutes, this makes a big difference.
  • There is no need to talk to your child about the night terror in the morning as it will only confuse him/her. Your child will not be able to remember it.

If your child has night scare several times a week at set times, you can do the following:

  • Keep a sleep log to see a pattern. So you will quickly find out what time it always happens.
  • Wake up your child 15 minutes before the night terror normally happens.
  • Don’t wake them up completely, just wake him/her up enough to turn or mumble something.
  • Do this for 7-10 nights in a row, even on days when he has no night terrors.

As you’ve read, nightmares and night terrors differ so much, it is important to clearly understand the difference between nightmares and night terrors. Like this you will know how to deal with them as good as possible.  Keeping a calm presence and using a reassuring voice can make a huge difference in these middle-of-the-night episodes for both you and your child. Remember to reassure your child as needed, showing love and respect for these normal experiences.

If your child has other sleep problems in addition to nightmares / night terrors, or if you simply need advice, you can always contact me. I am happy to help you.

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One response to “Nightmare or night terror?”

  1. […] The nervous system of young children is quickly overstimulated. With a lot of media consumption, it could quickly have a negative impact on the upcoming sleep. It is difficult for your child to process everything they see on TV. Often they are still busy processing it in their sleep. Nightmares and / or night terrors happen more likely if there was a lot of media consumption during the day or just before bedtime. Not sure what’s the difference between a nightmare and a night terror, have a look at my article “Nightmare or night terror” […]

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