Night Terrors v Nightmares – Which are you dealing with?
When your child wakes the household during the night with their crying and screaming, it can be a distressing time for all. Our instinct is usually to rush in and console our unhappy little person and let them know that it was just a dream and everything is going to be alright. This can be easier said than done…. Night terrors and nightmares are two different phenomenon that can disturb your child’s sleep. They occur in different stages of sleep and are different in the way they are experienced by both the child and the adult dealing with the sleep disturbance.
How do I know whether they are night terrors or nightmares?
Nightmares occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage, when we usually dream, can be at any age and will usually relate to the experiences or fears of a child. Night terrors are typically experienced by children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years old, occurring during the transition between different phases non-REM sleep and is not dream related in any way.
The main difference for you as a parent dealing with these kinds of sleep disturbances is that the child who has experienced a nightmare will usually wake up, seeking consolation and comfort (yes, they can be picky about who they want to comfort them), can usually recall what frightened them or is bothering them and often have trouble returning to sleep after the event.
If your child is experiencing a night terror, they are generally inconsolable and are actually asleep for the duration of the episode which can last as long as 20 mins. It can be an extremely frightening experience for a parent as your child may be screaming and thrashing about, even pushing any comfort away, and yet your child is actually still asleep (even though their eyes are sometimes open) and will remember nothing of the experience in the morning. In fact, it is recommended that you do not attempt to wake a child experiencing a night terror, just remain nearby to ensure they do not injure themselves during the episode.
More information can be found on the Queensland TripleP website. If you are concerned that your child is suffering from frequent nightmares or night terrors, you should talk to your GP about whether you need to seek a referral to a paediatric sleep specialist.
We asked Australian parents about their experiences with night terrors
You are not alone! If you’re dealing with a child suffering from night terrors or nightmares, the Baby Hints and Tips community is standing by to share their experiences and put your mind at ease. We asked our community about their experiences with night terrors and here’s what they had to say.
Medical disclaimer: Tips provided need to be considered in conjunction with medical advice. For immediate concerns, please contact HealthDirect (Australia wide) ph 1800 022 222 to talk to a registered nurse 24hrs a day, and in emergencies call 000
Has anyone experienced baby night terrors in baby or nightmares with their baby? I’m not sure if that is what is keeping my 10 month old awake at night. He has been waking up crying every hour. I have watched him cry in his sleep and then sit up still crying. Only I can console him. If my partner tries to pick him up he holds onto me tighter. It can take quite a while to settle him again and 40-60 mind later it happens again. He isn’t cold / wet or hungry and he sleeps ok during the day. Any suggestions? I’m booked in to my doctor next week as well.
- Mine does this. She often cries in her sleep, sits or stands up and gets stuck. She can be inconsolable. All I can do when she’s like that is hold her in the dark and wait for her to settle, then put her back down. Shelley
- You poor thing! That sounds horrible! Maybe try a nightlight or leaving the light on (if you haven’t already). If he’s sleeping ok during the day maybe it’s the dark. Or maybe he has night and day mixed up. I hope the doctor can be of some help! They might be able to refer you to a sleep clinic or something. Good luck! Hope it gets better soon Jess
- I’ve had 2 of kids that have had it and all you can do is give comfort. Since I put radio on in my girl’s room she having them less – the doctor can’t do anything for night terrors. I have also heard put lavender in pillow and sleep drops are great from pharmacy Wendy
- My son seemed to get them when he was 7 months, all we could do was snuggle him till he calmed down and went back to sleep, don’t try to wake him just makes the crying worse. He did out grow it after a few months but there’s nothing you can really do, apparently it has something to do with how their brain breaks down the memories that happened that day, if something upset them during the day as simple as you not being in the room when they first wake up or something as scary as being barked at by a dog can trigger it. Steph
- I have suffered night terrors for years and see an acupuncturist for it which worked fabulously. My daughter was about 9 months when she started waking with almost blood curding screams at night. Totally different cry than her normal cry for all the “usual” reasons. Sounds odd, but I took her to my acupuncturist and she was treated a few times and hasn’t looked back. Oh, and they do obviously practice very differently on bubbas and children than adults! Shelley
- It just sounds like nightmares or night waking, he might be waking as a habit now. It doesn’t sound like night terrors as he wouldn’t be consoled by anyone, not even you. Maegan
- I had a step daughter who was treated for night terrors at first until it was found to be reflux, ulcers etc from a bowel problem. As a precaution see a doctor and have either confirmed Shai
- My little man spent a few horrible nights in hospital at 10 months and when we came home started having them, or that’s what I thought it was. Prior to that he was an incredible sleeper right from the start. We just let him sleep with us. It was the only thing that seemed to keep him settled. We continued to try to get back into the cot each night and day sleeps, it took about 3-4 weeks, but hasn’t had any since, touch wood Vanessa
- It could be something like silent reflux or teething but my LG at almost 2 years old has night terrors every now and again and the only thing that I can do is let her cry it out. As much as it sounds horrible, there’s nothing else I can do without making it worse and she’s safe when she’s crying so I know that she will be ok. Liana
- What about sleep apnoea? Might be something to ask the doctor about. My son constantly waked at night like your little one. Only wanted me. Turns out after trying many, many things, it was sleep apnoea. He was operated on and since then has slept so much better! Katrina
- We recently went through the same thing with our 10 month old. Went on for 2 weeks. Turns out she was going thru a growth spurt and teething at the same time. I stopped picking her up every time and just sat beside her cot to calm her down. Once the two teeth broke thru the skin it stopped. Sarah
- Yes my daughter has always got them and so does my fiancé. The pediatrician advised to wake her slightly before midnight (I just wake her just before I go to bed about 10pm) and this will reset her sleeping pattern. When I say “wake her slightly” I mean just give her a kiss on the forehead or place my hand on her gently and rock her back and forth until she stirs a little to readjust herself. It helps most nights but we do still get the odd night especially after a busy day. Joanne
- My son has this and the only cure was taking him outside. The change of temperature wakes them from the night terror. Jennifer
- My little sister had this when she was a baby, She wouldn’t let anyone but me near her and mum used to get a wet facecloth and I would put it on her forehead or sometimes she would suck it and go back to sleep Amie
Has your baby experienced night terrors? Share below