Nightmares and Night Terrors: The What's What and Who's Who of Screaming in the Night

Jan 29, 2018

It's a quiet peaceful evening.

The kids are long in bed, sleeping soundly and you're puttering in the kitchen putting away those last few things before you turn in for the night yourself.

When you suddenly hear one of your kids yelling.

Or sobbing.

Or calling you.

You run up to the bedrooms to see what the problem is, and find your preschooler in his bed looking absolutely petrified.

Is it a nightmare? Or night terrors?

And is there even a difference?


They're actually two totally different creatures, each with their own causes, symptoms and solutions

Here's how to spot which is which.



Nightmares are dreams that your child's brain cooks up during REM sleep. It's a sci-fi virtual reality show - with your kid as the star.

Like all dreams it seems very real as it's happening, and it can be hard for our children to separate real reality from the dream-reality, especially when they're younger. Coupled with that, our young preschoolers (usually around 4 years old) start developing imagination - so that scary thing that happened in her dream may be something she's scared of for real life, too.

When your child has a bad dream, he's likely actually afraid when he wakes. Our brains experience dreams as though they actually are reality. That means that he might have a quicker heart rate and breathing that he'll have to slow in order to relax to fall asleep.


Night Terrors

Night terrors, on the other hand, look really scary, but aren't at all. In a night terror, your child will be completely asleep, but look like she's petrified. She'll thrash around and likely yell the house down.

He also will not respond to your touch or voice - and the yelling will stop as suddenly and mysteriously as it began. If you would wake him, he would have no recollection of the incident.


Wondering how to deal with and prevent them? Click HERE to read more on nightmares, and HERE for more on night terrors.

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