• Martha Lewis

Nightmare or Night Terror?

You're suddenly woken up at 3am to a blood-curdling scream from your child! You rush in there to make sure your child is ok. Did he have a nightmare or a night terror? And is this sign that something is wrong?

Children can start having nightmares and night terrors when they are around 3 years old. It can be confusing to tell the difference between the two. So I want to explain nightmares and night terrors and what to do when they happen. (You want to handle a nightmare differently than a night terror.)


When your child has a nightmare, he may wake up in the night and be scared and want comfort. He will usually be able to remember his dream and tell you about it.

What to do about nightmares

When your child has a nightmare, you can go into his room and comfort him. Listen to his fears and try to understand them. You don't want to dismiss his fears or make fun of him. Reassure him that's he's safe.

Talk to him about dreams. About how they happen when you're sleeping but they seem real. You can also teach him some coping skills like being brave and thinking positive thoughts.

After he's settled down and fine, leave the room so he can go back to sleep on his own. If you start staying with him while he falls asleep, he may want you to stay with him in the night every night.

Night terrors

Night terrors are frightening to parents because your child seems terrified. As Weissbluth says, "it almost seems as if some evil spirit has gripped your child."

Night terrors are different than nightmares because your child won't wake up from a night terror. He will be inconsolable and fully asleep. The terror can last 5-15 minutes before it suddenly ends.

Unlike a nightmare, your child most likely won't remember his night terror at all the next morning.

What to do about night terrors

You actually don't want to wake your child in the middle of a night terror. I suggest going into his room and making sure he doesn't hurt himself. Wait until the terror subsides and then leave him to peacefully sleep the rest of the night.

Night terrors happen more often when children are overtired, so make sure your child is getting the 11-13 hours of sleep he needs every night.

I hope this helps explain the difference between nightmares and night terrors and what to do in each situation. Be especially cautious around Halloween as to what your child watches on TV and is exposed to. It can be a scary time for kiddos!

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Martha Lewis, MS

Jackson Hole, WY



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