Having a nightmare is like a rite of passage; everyone’s had at least one in their lifetime. (Unfortunately, some have the same one repeatedly.)
Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, on the other hand, aren’t quite as common among adults, but roughly 40% of children are affected by them.
In this post, I’ll share the differences between a nightmare, a bad dream, and a night terror, common causes, preventative measures, and how to respond to each.
Differences between nightmares, bad dreams, and night terrors
As mentioned above, one difference between nightmares and night terrors is that the former is commonplace and the latter is not so much.
Nightmares come on the scene around 2-3 years old and happen in the second half of the night during our lighter sleep cycles. We’re easily aroused from them, comforted by the presence of someone else, and they are memorable.
Oftentimes, the terms "nightmare" and "bad dream" are used interchangeably, but there are some differences between the two. With a nightmare, we wake afterward (or suddenly during it) and can still feel the effects of it - whether it be anxiety, fear, rapid pulse, heavy breathing, sweating. With a bad dream, there’s no sudden wake-up or long lingering physiological effects, just a bad memory of a bad dream.
Night terrors on the other hand happen in the beginning hours of the night when we’re in our deepest sleep. During an episode (which lasts a few seconds to a few minutes, rarely longer), there’s typically
Fully opened eyes but an unawareness of their surroundings (they’re still asleep)
Though frightening for all involved, they’re typically not a cause for concern and are often outgrown by the teenage years.
Causes of nightmares and night terrors
Though there are some significant differences between how nightmares and night terrors manifest, their list of causes is the same.
The most common causes are:
Overtiredness / extreme tiredness
Sleep schedule disruption due to travel, illness, or other reasons
Personal or family history of nightmares or night terrors
Other, less common, causes are:
Withdrawal from certain medications
Mental health conditions: PTSD, depression, general anxiety disorder, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.
Restless leg syndrome
Preventing nightmares & night terrors
Taking a proactive approach can help prevent (or at least lessen) both nightmares and night terrors.
A few things you can do are:
Prevent or overcome overtiredness,
Limit screen time (or completely eliminate it if they’re having frequent episodes),
Keep an open dialogue about anything that’s troubling your child or you think could be troubling them. This will help dissolve any fear before it has a chance to manifest as a nightmare or night terror (hopefully!) and build their resilience, courage, and relationship with you!
Do your best to limit your child’s exposure to potentially frightening things.
If nightmares or night terrors are becoming frequent, keep a log of when they’re happening (dates and times) and for night terrors, how long they last. If your child has night terrors at the same time most nights, it may be helpful to slightly rouse them 15 minutes prior to that time. You don’t need to fully wake them up, just enough so they stir, moan, or rollover. What you’re doing is pulling them out of that deeper sleep state and (hopefully) bypassing the night terror. If they still have the night terror, try fully waking them the 15 minutes prior to that time the next night. When they wake, just let them know you’re checking on them.
To help prevent injury during a night terror, be sure your child’s room is safe and the furniture is secured to the walls.
When is there cause for concern?
Though the occasional nightmare, bad dream, or night terror/sleep terror isn’t a cause for concern, when they’re coming weekly or multiple times a week, it’s time to examine a few things (see the prevention list above) or potentially talk to the doctor.
If these episodes are causing excessive daytime sleepiness, trouble focusing on tasks, behavior struggles, excessive fear around sleep, or harm or injury to your child or those around them, it’s time to examine a few things (see the prevention list above) and to talk to their doctor.
How to respond during a nightmare or night terror
Since there are some significant differences in how a nightmare and a night terror play out, how you respond to your child during an episode of either will be slightly different. (But, yes! Do respond to your child if you know or suspect they’re having or just had a nightmare or night terror.)
For a nightmare, typically your child will call out for you as soon as they wake from it. Their call out will have a tinge of fear mingled with it, which is the best indicator that there’s no need to wait -
Go in and turn on their lamp. Turning on a light will help further bring them back to reality and separate them from the nightmare. But don’t rush to get them out of bed. Quickly get to their room, take a breath, and calmly enter and approach them. We don’t want our actions or body language to be misinterpreted as OMG! There is something to fear! Mom’s freaking out too!! Instead, we want our presence to reassure them that they are safe and that what they just experienced is nothing to truly fear.
Once you’re sure it was a nightmare, reassure them that they’re safe, and let them know that the nightmare is over and not real. It’s been found that it’s best to not talk about the details of the nightmare. Doing that only reinforces the fear and causes the images to linger longer than necessary. So, validate the fear (nightmares are scary and you’re safe) and move on to comforting them. It’s definitely ok to get your child up for some snuggles, but ideally, we don’t want them falling back to sleep during them.
You can redo the last portion of the bedtime routine to calm them more and help signal to them and their body that it’s time for bed. A favorite book will also help get their mind onto better things.
You should be able to tell when they’ve calmed enough to get back to bed. That’s when you can let them know you’ll be going back to your bed in a minute (or after one more short book or at the end of the one you’re reading) and they’ll be going back to theirs to have sweet dreams. If they’re hesitant, reassure them that you can hear them, they’re not alone - even when you’re not in the room you’re still in the house and can hear them, and they truly are safe.
When it’s time, tuck them back into bed, give a kiss, and head back to your room.
Remember, what we do speaks louder than what we say. If we’re saying, “You’re safe!” but act as if they’re not, they’ll for sure believe what you’re doing versus what you’re saying.
Let your actions match your words and your words your actions.
For a night terror or sleep terror, you’ll likely be awoken by the sound of your child going through it.
Again, there’s no need to wait to go in and be with them. But, you won’t be able to comfort them during it. Do not wake or restrain your child during a night terror. That’s been shown to lengthen the night terror and cause upset, confusion, and disorientation.
Make their space as safe and comfortable as possible. If they’re flailing about, put pillows on their floor by their bed and move any potentially harmful things away from them. If they’re sleepwalking, gently guide them back to their room.
Once they wake from the terror, they’ll likely be a little confused because they won’t remember it and won’t know why you’re in the room. So,
calmly let them know that you heard them call out to you in their sleep and you came in to check on them and make sure they were safe.
Reassure them that they are safe (don’t go into detail about what they were doing during the night terror).
If they’re calm, tuck them back in, give kisses and you go back to bed.
If they’re unsettled, stay with them a little while, read a book together, and once they’re calm, tuck them back in, give kisses, and you go back to bed.
Remember, they won’t remember the night terror, they are safe, it won’t last long, and you’ll be there to comfort and reassure them once they come out of it.
Watching our children go through scary situations, whether real or imaginary, is hard! Especially in the middle of the night when you’re in a sleepy state and trying to find your bearings as well.
But, thankfully in the case of dreams (good, bad, or terrifying), there are things we can do to help reduce the occurrence of the worst of them and comfort our children when they happen.
You're doing great! Here's to sweet dreams ✨