Nightmares vs. Night Terrors

My name is Kensey Butkevich, and I am a Certified Sleep Coach, Board Certified Behaviour Analyst, and founder of Sleep Easy Clinic. I help children sleep more and teach new skills to decrease their behavior! 

Today I’m here to talk to you about Nightmares vs. Night Terrors, how to tell the difference and what you can do to help. Keep in mind that every child is unique and if you are concerned, make sure you speak to your pediatrician to ensure there is no underlying medical issue. 


How to Identify

During a nightmare, your baby’s body is still, they may scream afterward, they are more alert - easier to wake or soothe, and can typically remember the dream or story.

When Do They Happen?

While it can vary, Nightmares often occur later in the night, often between 3 and 6 am. 


So what can cause a Nightmare? You’ve had them as a child and as an adult, and they are more common for some than others. Nightmares seem to peak during preschool years when fear of the dark is common. In children, the main causes are:

  • Sleep Deprivation
  • Changes in Sleep Schedule
  • Imagination Progressions
  • Anxiety

How to Help

While most toddlers will have nightmares at some point, and they aren’t always preventable, there are things you can do to help!

  • Have a consistent sleep schedule
  • Practice good sleep hygiene
  • Work on worries and anxiety during the days
  • Comfort and validate your child so they know they are safe
  • Practice changing the ending of the nightmare

Night Terrors

How to Identify

During a Night Terror, your child’s body will be moving, and they may scream out. They will be disoriented and difficult to wake or soothe, and they typically do not remember what happened afterward.  A night terror is a sudden reaction of fear that happens during the transition from one sleep stage to another.

When Do They Happen?

While it can vary, Night Terrors often occur during the first third of the night and are common between toddlerhood and age 12.  


So what can cause a Night Terror? Whether you have had one yourself or not, think of a Night Terror as a Nightmare just more dramatic. If the biological parents have had Night Terrors, it may increase the chance for the child. In children, the main causes are:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Changes in sleep schedule
  • Anxiety
  • Strong family history/genes

How to Help

While most toddlers will have dreams and nightmares, and sometimes we can’t prevent them, there are things you can do to help!

  • Prepare a safe sleeping space
  • Keep sleep schedules and routines consistent
  • Identify and reduce stress
  • Have good sleep hygiene
  • Check your child’s safety, no need to wake them if they are safe 
  • Keep records, check for illnesses or medical causes
  • No need to discuss the event with your child

Remember, Nightmares are common and are a dream often brought on by your toddlers' newfound imagination, typically during the preschool years. Addressing these fears during the day can go a long way to helping in the middle of the night. While Night Terrors are not technically dreams but a reaction of fear that happens during sleep cycle transitions, you can think of them as more dramatic Nightmares. You can help your little one by identifying and reducing stress and keeping sleep schedules and routines consistent. 

If you are concerned or can’t figure out how to help your toddler make sure you talk to your pediatrician or sleep consultant to calm your fears and help you figure out the perfect solution for your child. 

Happy Sleeping,

Kensey is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst & Certified Child Sleep Consultant with over 12 years of clinical experience in parent coaching. She empowers parents in supporting their children's sleep needs taking into consideration a child's temperament, development, & parent values and goals. Kensey believes that sleep shaping is about supporting children in a way that complements their unique progressions, so you can feel restful, not stressful. She lives in Ontario, Canada, with her son and partner.


Note: Guest blog posts are shared for informational and educational purposes and may not reflect the official policy or position of SlumberPod (parent company, Dovetail Essentials, LLC), our employees, and/or contractors.

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