Understanding Your Child’s Sleep: Nightmares and Night Terrors

Sunny Im-Wang, Psy.D.

It is important to know the difference between night terrors and nightmares. Since their origins are different, the ways in which you approach them will be very different. Night terrors in children usually occur during the early part of the night, as they transition from stage 3 to stage 4. Night terrors are not dreams; rather, they are a highly aroused state in which the child is very frightened[2]. It is almost as if the child’s body is awake, but his mind is not. Nightmares, on the other hand, are bad dreams that may be quite vivid. They are more likely to occur in the wee hours of the morning, during REM sleep. A child usually won’t remember having a night terror, whereas he may remember a nightmare.

With nightmares, you can gently awaken your child to comfort and reassure him. But with night terrors, it’s best not to try to awaken your child. If you do, not only will he be very confused and disoriented, but he may also have a harder time getting back to sleep. He will not be responsive to reasoning or consoling. Typically, even your presence might frighten him, as he may mistake you for a figure who is trying to harm him. Remember, your child may look awake, but he is not. If you are concerned that he might hurt himself while crying and moving too harshly, stay with him until the night terror passes. Since your child may thrash or try to get out of bed during a night terror, you may need to use gentle restraint to prevent him from injury.