Nightmares and Night Terrors: How To Tell The Difference & Help Your Child Cope


Oct 13, 2022

Is your child having a night terror or a nightmare? What’s the difference and how do you help a child work through either a nightmare or night terror?

These are sleep disturbances that parents think are unsolvable, but actually there are many strategies we can implement to help minimize these occurrences with your child!

Both nightmares and night terrors are worrisome to us as parents but my goal is to help you have a better understanding and start implementing some of these changes right away!

Let’s first look at nightmares. 

What Are Nightmares? 

The reality is that nearly all children experience nightmares at some point. They are something you just can’t completely avoid! 

Nightmares tend to occur several hours after going to bed or in the very early hours of the morning during REM sleep. Additionally, nightmares are likely to occur after a person wakes up in the early morning and falls back to sleep for a short stint until morning time.

During the REM stage of sleep the brain is very active sorting through experiences and new information for learning and memory. Often these images your brain projects are so vivid that your child may not be able to distinguish what is real and what is not.

What Age Do Nightmares Begin?

Babies (0-16 months) do not experience nightmares or night terrors, but nightmares can sometimes happen as young as 18 months to 24 months. 

If you have a baby who you believe is experiencing a nightmare we may want to analyze environmental factors or lack of sleep expectations that may be startling your child out of sleep.

  • Nightmares tend to occur several hours after going to bed or in the very early hours of the morning during REM sleep.
  • Children DO respond to comfort and reassurance. They also may be reluctant to go back to sleep until they feel safe.
  • Nightmares occur during the stage of sleep when the brain is very active and sorting through experiences and new information for learning and memory. Since these images are so vivid your child might not be able to distinguish what’s real and what’s not real.

Almost all children experienced nightmares at some point. 

They are something you just can’t completely avoid.

Babies (0-16 months) do not experience nightmares or night terrors, but nightmares can sometimes happen as young as 18 months to 24 months. 

For babies, I want you to look at environmental factors that could be startling your child out of sleep.

How to Cope with Nightmares 

When your child wakes in the night, you know the difference between a crying and moaning between sleep cycles and a cry that indicates that they are scared and something is wrong. 

When a child experiences a nightmare you will likely hear them shriek, cry or scream that sounds as if they are in distress. You will know that your child is having a nightmare because they ARE able to wake up and you CAN help them out of this fight.

If you child is having a nightmare, the first step is to respond to them.

During a nightmare you are able to respond to your child with comfort and reassurance that it was just a dream.

They may be reluctant to go back to sleep until they feel safe.

Remind them that you love them. Phrases like:

“I’m here for you. You are safe. I love you.”

“You are in your bed safe and sound.”

Hug them and be a calming presence. 

Additionally, turn on a light to dispel any fear they might have about what is going on. 

Turning the lights on in your child’s room after a nightmare is a good way to remind them of their current reality.

If your child is willing and seems able to do so, it’s also okay to ask them what the dream was about.

Discuss what happened with your child and be there to listen.

We want your child to know that they are important, that their fears are important and as the caregiver you are invested in helping them. 

Ask them questions like:

What happened?

What did you see or dream about?

Talk about your child’s dream and label it as a dream.

Offer reassurance, love and security. 

However, don’t discuss the nightmare for too long.  You don’t have to have an in depth discussion about the nightmare, just listen to whatever they want to tell you.

Let them know that it’s okay and that everyone has dreams that can be scary or upsetting, sometimes. 

*If your child is 4+ year old, you may want to consider the Zenimal as a way to help them fall back asleep peacefully! Use code LITTLEZSLEEP to save on yours!*

Remind your child they are safe, that the dream wasn’t real, and that it’s time to go back to bed. 

In the morning, if they want to talk about their dream more, discuss it with them! 

You can even let them journal about it, or draw pictures about it because oftentimes those worries will vanish in the daylight.

How To Prevent Nightmares

Limit Screen Time

The best way to prevent nightmares is to limit your child’s screen time before bed.

Turn the TVs, tablets and devices off at least 1-2 hours before your child goes to bed. 

Screens block the release of melatonin making it harder for your little one to fall asleep and stay asleep.

Limiting screens also prevents your child from experiencing any scary or vivid images before bedtime and that will also help to prevent nightmares. 

Additionally, it’s also important to pay close attention to what your child is watching.

Don’t let Netflix aimlessly play episode after episode without monitoring what is playing. 

Monitor what your child is saying, what they’re thinking through and always be there to help them process their nightmare.

Need to help your family develop a screen time plan? See more here!

Offer an early bedtime 

If your child is having chronic nightmares, it’s very possible your child is overtired! You’ll know they are overtired by how long it takes them to fall asleep. 

When a child crashes to sleep and is out within 5 minutes or less, they are more than likely WAY past their ideal bedtime.

If that’s the case, try putting your child to bed 15 to 30 minutes earlier.

When a child is overtired they will struggle to sleep restfully, and instead will be struggling with the adrenaline they feel from being OVER tired! 

By offering an early bedtime the goal is to them to fall asleep within 15-20 minutes and have a more settled night of sleep.

Personally, if my oldest daughter has a highly active day and goes to bed on time or 15 minutes later than normal, then she will experience a sleep disturbance at night. 

If she’s overtired and goes to bed then she will wake up startled or she’ll have a nightmare!

When you know your child has had an active day, or is having chronic nightmares, put them to bed early to help prevent nightmares.

What are Night Terrors?

Night terrors are more of a sleep disorder, and actually can be genetic!

Night terrors are just like they sound – it sounds as if your child is truly terrified. Typically sitting in the bed or standing on the floor, screaming loudly with their eyes closed.

These disturbances tend to occur 2-3 hours after going to bed, during deep sleep (NREM cycle). 

What Age Do Night Terrors Begin?

Night terrors are much more rare for children and occur in children ages 2-12 years of age. 

Night terrors happen in 3 to 6% of kids 2 years of age and older. 

Since night terrors can be hereditary, look at both your side of the family and your partner’s side of the family and see if anyone within your surrounding family experienced night terrors or sleepwalking.

How To Cope With Night Terrors

There actually is nothing you can do to help your child cope through the night terror.

Children will NOT respond during the disturbance, and in some cases your offers to help calm them can make the night terror worse. It’s best to sit near your child to ensure they are physically safe, but do not interfere or attempt to wake them up.

They will eventually stop and go back to sleep. Only to wake in the morning and never remember it happened!

How to Prevent Night Terrors

While there is nothing you can do IN the moment, we can help prevent night terrors!  

Engage in some stress-reducing activities 

To help prevent night terrors, engage in stress-reducing activities with your kids. 

Some examples include yoga, stretching, or some deep breathing. 

*Again, the Zenimal is an amazing tool  that provides your child with guided meditations and sleep sound tracks that will help to calm them and reduce their stress before sleeping. Use code LITTLEZSLEEP to save on yours!*

Implement a consistent bedtime 

Helping your child build a consistent bedtime routine is a great way to build healthy sleep habits! This routine works to cue your child to sleep by allowing their body to wind down before bedtime. 

Knowing how to go to sleep and when to go to sleep will reduce your child’s stress and help them to sleep more soundly through the night.

Learn all about our bedtime routines for children here!

Offer an early bedtime 

Overtiredness typically manifests itself in restless sleep and hyperactivity for children. That’s the opposite of what we want while we work to reduce night terrors!

The ideal time for a child to go to bed is typically between 7-8 PM.

So let’s say your child has been experiencing night terrors and they’ve been going to bed at 7:30PM every single night.

Instead of putting them to bed at 7:30PM, I want you to do is experiment by putting them down at 7:15PM for a few nights.

Does that make any difference? 

If that’s not making a difference then put your child to bed at 7:00PM.

Manipulate your child’s bedtime by 15-minute increments every few days and figure out what is the best bedtime for your child!

Ensure that your child is getting the right amount of sleep

Children in preschool and even early elementary need 10-12 hours of sleep in a 24 hour cycle. If you aren’t sure if your child is getting the appropriate amount of sleep cross check their age with the sleep needs chart by American Academy of Pediatrics.


Nightmares and night terrors are two different sleep disturbances.

  • Night mares can occur as young as 18 months and you CAN help your child calm down after they wake from a dream.
  • Night terrors can occur as young as 2 years old and as old as 12 years old and you CANNOT help your child wake up from this.
  • To prevent nightmares cut your child’s screen time down and avoid all screens 1-2 hours before bed. Additionally, make sure your child is not going to bed too late.
  • To prevent night terrors offer an earlier bedtime so they are not overtired, and help them through stress relieving activities before bed.

Now that you know the difference between nightmares and night terrors, you can confidently help your child cope with them as well as help to prevent them by implementing clear, positive sleep habits that will help your child sleep more soundly through the night. 

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