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Is a Night Terror the Same as a Bad Nightmare?

Night terrors (also known as sleep terrors), although seemingly similar to nightmares, are in fact different in several ways.  

  • First, night terrors are much more intense and dramatic than a nightmare.  They can be quite alarming to witness because your child might suddenly sit up in bed, shout or scream in distress, be sweating, and thrash around.
  • Second, unlike a nightmare, during a night terror your child will be inconsolable and will not respond to your soothing or comforting.  Your child will likely have their eyes open but will not recognise you at all.
  • Third, unlike nightmares which your child will often be able to remember, if they have had a night terror, they will not have any memory of it the next morning.  

What causes a night terror?

Night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system during sleep.  They usually happen 2 to 3 hours after your child has fallen asleep, when sleep moves from the deepest stage of non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep to lighter REM sleep.  Usually your child will just transition smoothly from deep sleep to lighter sleep, but sometimes a sudden reaction to fear occurs at this time in the form of a night terror.

How can I help my child?

If your child has a night terror, as you will likely be unable to comfort them, the best way to handle it is to wait it out and make sure your child is safe and does not get hurt if they are thrashing about.  Night terrors can last from only a few minutes up to 30-40 minutes, but eventually your child will fall back to sleep. Do not try to wake your child up as this can make them even more confused, disoriented and scared and it can often take a long time to settle your child back to sleep once they have fully woken up.  

If your child starts to have night terrors on a regular basis at the same time each night, your doctor may recommend waking your child 15-30 minutes before the night terror usually occurs.  You then let your child fall back to sleep and in some cases it is enough to break the cycle of the sleep problem.

Other things you can do to try and prevent them from happening include preventing your child from becoming overtired, making sure they are getting enough rest, and creating a bedtime routine that is calm and relaxing.


Do I need to seek help?

Although night terrors are not very common and happen in only 3-6% of children aged between 18 months and 12 years of age, having night terrors does not mean there is anything wrong with your child.  Most of the time they disappear on their own as the central nervous system matures and your child develops more mature forms of deep sleep.


If you are finding though that night terrors seem prolonged, are very violent and are occurring with other sleeping difficulties or breathing issues such as snoring then you should discuss this with your doctor, as referral to a sleep specialist might be warranted.


If you have any questions or concerns about your child’s sleep please don’t hesitate to contact a Mama Coach.

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