Is my Child Having a Nightmare or a Night Terror and How Should I Deal with it?

By: Jenn Kelner, CPA, CA

Certified Child Sleep Consultant


It’s in the middle of the night and you wake up to your toddler screaming at the top of his lungs. You race to his bedroom to find him thrashing around with a look of fear and panic in his eyes. What do you do? Your first thought is to go and comfort him, but is that really what you should do? The answer depends on whether it’s a nightmare or a night terror.

 Nightmares are scarier versions of regular dreams, occurring during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Since REM sleep usually occurs in the early morning hours, nightmares tend to occur during this time. The child usually remembers the nightmare when they wake up, and can talk about it in detail. If yourchild has a nightmare, reassure them with a cuddle and a calm voice, and remind them that it was just a dream and not reality. It often helps to have them talk about the dream to distinguish between what’s real and what’s not.

Night terrors, which may look and sound like nightmares, are in fact very different from nightmares and should be treated differently. Night terrors occur during sleep arousals between sleep stages – those brief moments of awareness during deep sleep. Although we all have partial wakings between sleep cycles, night terrors occur when these brief wakings don’t go smoothly. The child is stuck between an awake state and an asleep state, where they are trying to wake up but cannot completely, creating this confusional event. Since our deepest sleep is during the first half of the night, night terrors will occur during that time and often at the same time each night if they happen frequently. They are most likely to occur in children 4 to 12 years old, with most outgrowing them by adolescence. Although the child may be thrashing around, screaming, jumping up and down, or running around, they are actually sound asleep and almost impossible to wake up. The child will be completely unaware of anyone’s presence even though their eyes may be wide open. The episode may last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, and as soon as it’s over they will settle down and go back to sleep as if nothing happened, with no memory of the event.

So what do you do if you child is having a night terror? The best thing to do is just watch them to make sure they are safe, and let them get through the episode without waking them or intervening. If you do try to wake them or interfere, it can often make the night terror worse, or prolong the episode. Since the child will have no memory of the event, it is best to avoid discussing the night terror with them, as this could confuse and embarrass them.

It’s important to know that night terrors are completely normal, harmless, and are not linked to a psychological issue or traumatic event. They most often occur because of overtiredness or change in routine, so ensure your child is getting adequate sleep and has a normal schedule. Put your child to bed 30-60 minutes earlier each night to help them catch up on sleep and be better rested.  Remind yourself that it is much worse for the parent witnessing the event than for the child going through it.

Jenn Kelner is a mother of 3 children (including twins!) and a Certified Child Sleep Consultant at BabyZzz. She helps tired families with infants, babies and toddlers become well rested families through customized sleep solutions and support. She offers various services including home, phone/Skype and

email consultations. For more information visit


Twitter: @mybabyzzz