Night Terrors vs. Nightmares


Night terrors affect 5-15% of children. Typically, night terrors occur in children between the ages of 4-6 years, however babies and younger children can experience them too. Night terrors usually occur in the first half of the night and are caused by partial awakenings from non-rem sleep (non-dream sleep). Children can cry, whimper or thrash around their bed. Children usually appear confused but not necessarily scared.

A night terror can last from just a couple of minutes anywhere up to half an hour. During this time a child cannot be calmed down, it is often more scary for the parent/s than it is the child. You will notice during a night terror that no matter what you do to try and calm your child down it won’t work. In many cases your child won’t know that you were present trying to offer them comfort and they won’t recall the night terror episode. The best thing for parent/s to do during a night terror is to sit close by to their child and wait for the episode to pass. After the night terror has passed your child will calm down and fall asleep again, without realising what has happened.

Preventing night terrors:

  • Reduce any stress that your child may have

  • Establish a consistent and calming bedtime routine

  • Ensure your child is not overtired when going to bed

  • Avoid late bedtimes

  • Ensure your child is having adequate naps / night sleep


Nightmares are experienced by 50% of children between the ages of 3-6 years. Nightmares occur during rapid eye movement (REM) or dream sleep. Children remember nightmares and are able to explain what scared them (unless they are at an age where they developmentally cannot articulate this). Children who have had a nightmare may be scared to go back to sleep.

What can cause nightmares?

  • Insufficient sleep

  • Being over-tired

  • Irregular routines

  • It may also be related to the developmental stage

Helping children work through their fears is the key to managing nightmares. It is important to teach children the difference between what is real and what is not, a great way to do this is through reading books. Other methods which assist children in dealing with their fears are:

  • Having a dim torch next to their bed in the case that they do become scared

  • Low level music or white noise to fill quiet

  • A comforter or teddy to sleep with

  • Monster spray (pretend spray to make monsters disappear)

  • Special/bonding activities with you and your child in their bedroom during the day (outside of sleep times) to show the child that their room is a secure and safe environment

  • Activities in the dark to show your child that the dark is not so scary i.e. a walk outside before bedtime to look at the stars or a camping night in the garden.

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