Please note, we are proudly supported by our readers. The product links are referral based and if you purchase an item we make a small commission. For more information please see our disclosure page.

February 10, 2021

The Difference Between Night Terrors & Nightmares

night terrors and nightmare our sleep guide

Waking up to the sound of screams is understandably terrifying. It is an experience that happens to many parents all over the world. Being startled awake in the middle of the night and sprinting to your child only to find they are flailing, screaming, and obviously in distress. Was it a nightmare? Or a night terror? What is the difference and does it change how you can help?

We are going to answer all of these questions and many more. Stick around to learn about what the differences are between a nightmare and a night terror along with what to do to avoid night terrors all together.

Looking to Put Nightmares To Rest? Click the link to learn how.

Night Terrors & Nightmares – What Are The Differences?

When it comes to night terrors & nightmares, understanding the differences is the best place to start. It is much easier to help you and your child cope if you know exactly what you are working with. Below are several ways to help you distinguish between these two sleep interrupting issues.

What is a Night Terror?

how to prevent night terrorsNight Terrors fall under a category of what is considered a Parasomnia. This is an umbrella term which covers disruptive sleep disorders. These sleep disorders can occur during arousals from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep or arousals from non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Many of these are false arousals, like night terrors, sleep walking, or talking in their sleep.

In these types of parasomnia’s the sleeper can be moving, talking, screaming, walking, crying, flailing etc. All while remaining unconscious and unaware of what they are doing.

Night terrors and sleep walking are two of the most common Parasomnias. However, there are some lesser known syndrome’s that fall

Sleep Cycles: Nightmares & Night Terrors:

what is a night terror?

Night Terrors can happen either during REM or Non-REM sleep. While nightmares only occur during REM sleep when dreaming typically occurs. While sleep terrors can occur during a much deeper phase of sleep that happens outside of REM sleep. This is the time of sleep when we are having slow brain waves and typically no dreaming at all.

We get most of our deep sleep within the first 3 hours of sleep, which is typically when night terrors will occur. Although they can also occur later into the evenings as well.

This is all based off of Night terrors typically occurring during deep NREM sleep while dreams occur during the lighter REM phases of sleep. NREM is longer at the beginning of the night while REM becomes longer later in the evening and early morning hours.

Learn more about your sleep cycles in our post: Chronotypes: Your Circadian Typology

Awake & Scared vs Screaming & Unconscious:

tips for stopping night terrorsNightmares can be understandably nerve racking and frightening. This is especially true for children.

Which can startle you awake and even trigger screams, sweating, heart racing, and the whole nine yards. Making a potential nightmare look very similar to a night terror/sleep terror.

When someone is experiencing a night terror they are often unaware it is happening. Often sweating, screaming, kicking, punching and so on. Many who experience night terrors will also sleep walk during these episodes. All while being unconscious and not being able to recall any kind of nightmare once they are awake.

Recollection of Dreams:

how to calm your child after a nightmareWhen someone wakes up from a nightmare, within the first few moments of waking up the nightmare can be remembered. For some these bad dreams can be remembered for days and weeks.

While children and adults alike may wake up later after having experienced a night terror and not even remember experiencing the night terror. Often they are far more frightening and disturbing to witness than to experience.

If you are able to recall a nightmare, then it was more than likely like a night terror. Although you may have a slight memory of feeling scared or overwhelmed with anxiety. Which may in fact be a small memory of your night terror. However if you can remember specifics of a dream, then that was a nightmare.

You May Also Enjoy: A Guide To Lucid Dreaming

Unresponsive To Help:

is it a nightmare or a night terror?Another sign that your child or loved one is experiencing a night terror and not a nightmare is if they are unresponsive to help. When you run into the room to calm them down, it is as if you are not in the room. As if they cannot hear your or see you, this is because they are still in a deep sleep.

For many this is the most difficult part of night terrors is not being able to soothe those going through the night terror. Just remember that your child is in a deep sleep and will not remember this when they wake up.

Next Steps of Night Terrors & Nightmares:

As a parent, you eventually will deal with night terrors and nightmares. However, a nightmare can be something that you are much more familiar with. While night terrors feel a little more foreign, and completely out of your control. Keep reading to learn more about night terrors, and how to best handle them.

Common Questions About Night Terrors

Night terrors may be a new theory to you. Especially if you’ve never experienced them until your own child has them. Below are a few frequently asked questions about night terrors to help you better understand.

What Does A Night Terror Feel Like?

how to tell the different between a night terror and a nightmareIf you do wake up during a night terror it has been described as feeling like you are waking up during the middle of a panic attack. Although many children and adults who experience night terrors often have no recollection of the experience at all. While a night terror can be especially worrying to witness, the good news is that it is often not even remembered by those who are experiencing them.

Since night terrors typically occur to those who are in a very deep sleep, they are completely unaware of what is happening. While witnessing a night terror can be disturbing to parents, or spouses that wish they could calm their loved ones. It should be calming to know that your child or spouse is safe and will likely have no recollection of the experience at all.

What Causes Night Terrors?

One cause of night terrors in children is simply brain immaturity. As the brain develops and matures, the night terrors often go away. If night terrors persist, we suggest seeking a medical evaluation.

Often for adults, night terrors are triggered by something going on in their life causing strain. Whether it is an abundance of stress, depression, anxiety, or PTSD just to name a few. Although it may be a sign of an underlying condition. Because it is so uncommon for adults, we do suggest talking to a medical professional.

  • Overly Tired
  • Overheating
  • Stress
  • Food Sensitivities
  • TV & Entertainment (Stressful or frightening content)
  • Social Struggles
  • Big Life Changes

Can You Wake Someone Up From A Night Terror?

sleeping calmly throughout the nightNot unless they are at risk of hurting themselves. It is generally believed that you should NOT try to wake someone up out of a night terror. Typically, trying to calm, touch, restrain, or wake up someone in the middle of a night terror can exasperate the situation. It can irritate and increase the severity of the night terror. If you do manage to wake someone out of a night terror they tend to be very disoriented and it can take much longer for them to calm down and get back to sleep.

We are going to share with you some other ways in which you can hopefully prevent night terrors all together. Keep reading for our top tips on preventing night terrors.

How To Prevent Night Terrors

When it comes to understanding what may trigger your little ones night terrors you can better help prevent them. Below are several ways you as a parent can help your child while awake to make sure that they are better off while they sleep.

Reduce Stress:

how to get to sleep at night without a terrorWhile it is common for adults to feel stressed or overwhelmed. Parents may be left wondering how their child may be stressed. Although lots of things can cause stress in a child’s life.

A great way to cut down on stress for adults and children is to be consistent. Change can be scary and stressful, while consistency and schedules can help a lot. Knowing what is going to happen and what is expected of you can help to relieve the stress of the unknown.

Struggling with stress? Head over to our post: Why Can’t You Sleep When You’re Stressed?

Create a Relaxing Bedtime Routine:

avoid getting overly tiredNot only will this tip help to stay relaxed, the routine of doing the same things and going to bed at the same time can help regulate your sleep schedule. Try to cut down on things you feel either you or your child “need” to do at night if they are causing stress.

For example, if your child becomes overwhelmed and stressed during bath time, see if you can shift full bath time to the mornings. While this may not be ideal, lowering the stress before bed may help avoid night terrors.

Click the link to learn more about how to create a Stress Free Nightly Routine

Avoid Getting Overly Tired:

have a regular sleep scheduleThis is especially important for children. Getting overly tired is a big trigger for night terrors. This can be avoided by taking naps when needed and adhering to a strict sleep schedule.

Especially during times when you are away from home, like on vacation. Traveling and having fun is an easy time to get overly tired and off of a usual sleep schedule. Even if your child is having a blast it is important to ensure they get the rest they need.

When you become overly exhausted the deep sleep sections of the sleep cycle will also become longer. Allowing for a larger opportunity for sleep terrors to occur.

You May Also Enjoy: How to Sleep Better with Depression

Take Care Of Mental Health:

getting to sleep comfortablyNight terrors can be a sign of something that the subconscious is trying to deal with, especially if your conscious mind is trying to put trauma away and not deal with it. Although general stress, anxiety, and depression can be enough on it’s own to trigger sleep terrors.

Which is why it is so important to not only take care of your physical health and wellbeing, but also your mental health. Seeing a therapist is a healthy and responsible thing to do. Thankfully more and more people are using therapy as a way to stay on track and make sure they are taking good care of themselves.

Click to learn How To Sleep Better With Anxiety

Limit Food & Drink Before Bed:

dont drink water at nightAny kind of irritant during sleep could be a potential trigger for a night terror. Which means we want to avoid them at all costs. Eating and drinking right before you go to sleep can cause intestinal distress, heartburn, or the need to urinate. All of which can be disruptive to sleep. Try to stop eating and drinking at least 1 hour before bed.

We also suggest being mindful of what your or your child eats in the evenings, and how it affects their sleep. You may find that your child has certain food allergies or sensitivities. Stomach aches or allergic reactions can trigger night terrors. So keep a close eye on if certain types of foods trigger night terrors.

You May Also Enjoy: Best And Worst Foods Before Bed

Limit Alcohol Consumption:

don't drink alcohol if you're depressed and can't sleepThis tip is obviously geared toward the adults who are experiencing night terrors. Excessive drinking can be a trigger for adults who experience night terrors.

This is because alcohol keeps you in the deeper phase of sleep for longer stints. Which can lead to an increase likelihood of more night terrors. This is especially true with excessive drinking. While having a small nightcap may make little to no difference in your sleep, excessive drinking can take a large toll on your sleep health.

Learn more about how alcohol affects your sleep in our post: Our Guide To Why Alcohol and Sleep Don’t Mix

Keep a Sleep Log:

dream diaries can help you get back to sleep after a nightmareEvery night there is a night terror, start taking note of what happened that day. What did your child eat for dinner, did they have dessert? Did you watch a certain movie? What time did they go to bed? Did they take a nap? Write down all the details of the day prior even if they all seem unrelated. You may be surprised at what might be triggering the night terrors.

This sleep journal is used to help identify potential triggers for night terrors. Once you identify the triggers you can better avoid them and help treat the root of the issue.

Are you a first timer when it comes to sleep journaling? This easy to follow sleep journal is perfect for kids.

Scheduled Awakenings:

If you or your child have very frequent and consistent night terrors, wake up around 30 minutes before when these sleep terrors typically occur. This can help break the cycle. Your sleep log will help you determine the time as well.

By waking your child up 30 minutes before when they typically experience a might terror, you are disrupting their sleep schedule. While this is not ideal for most sleep, it can be very helpful with avoiding night terrors all together.

Final Thoughts on Night Terrors & Nightmares:

When it comes down to it the biggest question people ask about night terrors is whether or not they should concern you. For children 3-6 years old, night terrors are incredibly common. If you are worried, you should never be talked out of talking to your doctor. However, we do recommend letting go of the fear.

Yes, night terrors and nightmares alike can be very frightening to witness. While nightmares are frightening to those who experience them, night terrors are most frightening for those witnessing them. Most of the time night terrors are harmless and nothing to be afraid of. Talking to your doctor can also be a great way to calm your fears and get a lot of helpful advice. We hope our advice can also help you to calm your nerves as well as help avoid future night terrors for you and your family.

getting to sleep well

Have a question for us? Feel free to Contact Us, we would love to help in anyway we can.