Nightmares VS night terrors - How to tell the difference

Updated: Mar 22

When your child starts screaming in the middle of the night and jolts you awake, it can be incredibly distressing for parents and rightly so. This kind of screaming can also go along with thrashing, aggression, hitting and parents can feel really stressed by this.

Nightmares and night terrors are commonly used as interchangeable terms but actually they are different phenomenons. How do you know which is which? Let's take a look...

Night terrors

These happen when you little one is partially aroused from the deepest part of their sleep (they aren't actually awake but aren't fully asleep either). Night terrors are often seen in the first couple of hours after your toddler has gone to bed for the night and are the most common from 2-4 years of age. Your toddler will not remember the night terror (which is why it is important to avoid waking them from it). It can be quite disturbing to watch which is why parents often try and wake their child.

What are the characteristics of a night terror?

  • Child may wake up suddenly in a panic screaming

  • Not responsive to your voice or touch

  • Can appear frightened and/or disorientated

  • Typically occur before midnight

  • Appear awake but vague/distant

  • Can appear aggressive (including thrashing and kicking)

  • Inconsolable

  • Won’t remember a thing the next day

  • Most will last 15-30 min or longer in some cases

How can you help your child through a night terror?

  1. Make the sleep environment safe

  2. Avoid touching them and restricting their movement

  3. Provide verbal reassurance

  4. Talk openly about it the next day, providing positive reassurance and 1:1 time

  5. Avoid waking them

  6. Frequency of night terrors increase with overtiredness - focus on day routine and early bedtime if they've recently dropped their nap! Avoid screen time in the 1-2 hours before bed.


Nightmares are most common after midnight and in the early hours of the morning. They occur in the lighter phases of sleep (REM - rapid eye movement and Dream Sleep). They start around 2.5 years of age typically - which coincides with a huge cognitive developmental change period including broadening imagination.

What are the characteristics of a nightmare?

  • Your child may wake up scared/fearful and upset but can talk and interact with you

  • They will be responsive when you provide reassurance

  • They will remember the nightmare and being upset and can talk to you about it

  • It can take time for them to wind down after a nightmare and go back to sleep

  • Toddlers and younger children may struggle to understand the threat/dream isn't real

How can you help your child through a nightmare?

  • Communication is key! Have an open chat about the nightmare and see if you can pinpoint where the fear has come from. E.g is it linked to a movie they have watched, a story they have heard or shadows on the wall

  • Give your child a comforter or a toy they have a strong bond with to help them feel more at ease in bed

  • Take the time to listen and validate how your child is feeling. What they are feeling isn't silly, it's very real for them.

  • Consider introducing a nightlight

  • Avoid dismissing the nightmare

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

Keen for 1:1 sleep support with Jazz? Book in a 15 minute chat here to discuss which package would best suit your family.

Jazz is the Founder of Let's Sleep. She is an Infant and Child Sleep Consultant, Midwife, MCHN, Nurse an

d Mum. Based on the Mornington Peninsula, VIC. Jazz is an experienced in home sleep consultant and also supports families with a range of virtual packages and eBooks.

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