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Nightmares vs Night terrors – what is the difference?

You may have found that your pre-schooler, who used to sleep blissfully through the night, has now started waking in a sweat and hysterical. Is it a bad a dream or something more?

As a parent it can be really upsetting to see your child so distraught, and some may even appear to be somewhat possessed. The frightening thrashing, aggression, screaming and lashing out can have any of us seeking answers. So what’s the difference between a bad dream and a night terror?

Night terrors happen when children are partially aroused from the deepest part of sleep, when they are not quite awake but not completely asleep. They often occur in the first hour or two after your toddler has fallen asleep and are most common in children aged between 2-4 years old. Thankfully your little one won’t remember a night terror. However, it can be very disturbing and quite traumatic for us as parents to witness.

What do night terrors look like?

  • Child may wake up suddenly in a panic screaming

  • Not responsive to your voice or touch

  • Can appear frightened and disorientated

  • Usually occur between bedtime and midnight

  • May look and act “possessed”

  • Seem awake but also distant

  • Can be quite aggressive, thrashing and kicking out

  • Inconsolable

  • Won’t remember a thing the next day

  • Most will last 15-30 min in duration, some may last longer

How can you help them through a night terror?

  1. Make sure their sleep space is safe

  2. Don’t try to touch them or restrict their movements

  3. Verbally reassure them

  4. Talk about it the next day, lots of positive reassurance and quality time together

  5. Support them through the night terror, don’t try to wake them

  6. Night terrors tend to occur more often when your child is overtired. If they have recently dropped their nap, or their days are full with busy, stimulating activities then get them into bed nice and early to reduce overtiredness.

Nightmares most often happen in the lighter phase of sleep and usually occur after midnight in the early hours of the morning. This is when Rapid Eye Movement (REM) or Dream Sleep usually occurs. They can start around 2.5 years old when there is a huge change in cognitive development and your toddler’s imagination is in overdrive.

How does a nightmare present?

- They may wake up scared and upset but can interact with you

- They will respond to you when you console and reassure them

- They will likely remember the nightmare vividly and be able to discuss this with you

- It may take them some time to calm down and eventually fall back to sleep

- Younger children may struggle to understand that it was just a dream (this is where nightlights are great)

"Validate your child’s feelings and give them lots of reassurance. Don’t brush their fears off as “silly”, they are very real feelings and emotions to your little one and we need to be supportive of this".

How can you help your pre-schooler if they have nightmares?

  • Talk to them! Discuss the nightmare and try to establish where it’s coming from. E.g dreaming of being chased by a wolf; have they recently read/watched The Three Little Pigs?

  • Use a security comforter, something to help your child feel relaxed and safe in bed

  • If they are afraid of the dark, introduce a night light. If they are afraid of monsters under the bed/in their cupboard get some monster spray (water in a hairspray bottle) and spray the room each night to keep the monsters away.

  • Validate your child’s feelings and give them lots of reassurance. Don’t brush them off as “silly”, they are very real feelings and emotions to your little one.

  • Be supportive not dismissive

It is important to acknowledge how your child is feeling and talk to them about their dreams and worries. Brushing their feelings off and not discussing what it is that’s making them feel anxious and fearful will only continue to impact their sleep.

If you have any concerns about your child's behaviour seek medical advice from your Maternal Health Nurse or GP.

If you need any additional information or support please feel free to contact me at to book in a FREE 15 minute phone consultation to talk about what is happening for your baby and how we help.

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