Night Terrors Vs. Nightmares: The Difference, Plus Causes And Symptoms

Brace Yourself! Everything To Know About Night Terrors And Your Toddler

November 30, 2020 Updated March 1, 2021

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It’s late, and you’ve already put your toddler to bed. You’re just trying to get your ice cream and Netflix binge on when you hear your child in the throes of what you assume is a terrible nightmare. But when you rush into their room, you realize this isn’t a standard nightmare. Your little one is inconsolable, but they’re also unaware of their surroundings. Groggy. It’s as though they aren’t even registering your presence. Then, seemingly just as fast as the episode came on, it passes and your toddler goes back to sleep — seemingly unaware of what just transpired. Shakily, you give up on binge-watching (you still have the ice cream, because you need it after that!) and turn to Google. What’s a night terror? And how can you distinguish night terrors vs. nightmares? Now you’re here and, rest assured, we’re going to walk you through this, Mama.

Night terrors are fairly common among young kids, and they’re a bit different from nightmares. While they’ll definitely get your heart racing out of your friggin’ chest, they’re usually not something you need to worry about.

So, toss another scoop of ice cream in your bowl and keep reading for the full rundown on night terrors.

What are night terrors?

Night terrors are usually brief episodes during the night in which your child screams and is inconsolable. According to Stanford Health Care, they are characterized by “extreme terror and a temporary inability to attain full consciousness.” And, OK, we realize that’s a pretty alarming description. But you may find it oddly comforting to know night terrors are really common in childhood — around 40 percent of children experience them.

When do night terrors occur?

Night terrors usually occur in the first third or half of the night, according to the Mayo Clinic. They don’t usually occur during nap time.

What’s the difference between a night terror and a nightmare?

In your panic-stricken parenting state, it can be easy to assume a really bad nightmare is a night terror and try to approach it as such. However, there are a few potentially quick ways to size up the situation and determine what you’re dealing with. For example:

  • Nightmares usually occur during the second half or third of the night, unlike night terrors, which happen in the first half.
  • While your child may remember a nightmare, they will not remember a night terror.

What does a night terror look like?

You can also look for telltale signs of a night terror. Here are some hallmarks that may help you distinguish them from toddler nightmares:

  • Night terrors often start with a scream or shout (which truly is a terror… for you).
  • Your child could sit up in bed looking wide-eyed and terrified, hence the terror for them.
  • Your child could be kicking or thrashing.
  • They will usually be very hard to awaken. If you do manage to wake them up, they’ll be really confused.
  • There’s generally no way to console a child in the midst of a night terror. If you try to comfort or restrain them, they may resist.
  • Night terrors are also sometimes connected with your toddler’s sleepwalking. That terror may cause your kid to run out of bed.

It goes without saying that none of this is a fun experience for you. And while it may seem particularly traumatic for your child while they’re in the throes, they’re not likely to even remember a night terror the next morning. Lucky them, right? Because, fair warning, it’ll likely be seared into your brain for weeks after the fact.

What causes night terrors in toddlers?

A night terror could be caused by a few reasons:

Stress

If your toddler had a particularly stressful day, that may manifest itself at night with a night terror. Honestly, we’ve all had weird dreams during difficult times, so it kind of makes sense.

Lack of Sleep

Toddlers usually need between 11 to 14 hours of sleep. If their sleep patterns have changed, or if they’re having trouble sleeping during the day, that could definitely be a culprit.

Change in Routine

Changes in routine can be really hard on your little ones. Holidays, traveling, changes at home — all these things could affect your child’s sleep and make them more prone to night terrors. Sleeping in a new environment can also be a trigger.

Fever

This one is pretty self-explanatory. A lot of us have nightmares, or at least really intense dreams, when we’re sick and feverish. So, it makes sense that a fever could spur on a night terror.

Medicine

Certain medications can also influence your child’s sleep patterns. If you’re worried about a drug’s effect on your kid, talk to your doctor about switching medications or lowering the dosage.

Caffeine

A few hours before bedtime, avoid giving your kid anything caffeinated. Children who have a high caffeine intake have been noted to experience night terrors more often than those who consume less caffeine.

What do I do when my toddler wakes up inconsolable?

Seeing your toddler screaming and inconsolable is really hard. If your two-year-old wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, you are going to want to assess if this is a nightmare or night terror. Are they responding to you? Asking for you? Or is the screaming accompanied by confusion and a half-awake state?

If you determine your child has woken up from a nightmare, feel free to console them and help them fall back asleep. But if your child is having a night terror, the best course of action — as distressing as it may be — is to wait it out. Trying to wake them up isn’t easy, and it will confuse them. Night terrors usually only last a few minutes. Once they’re over, your child should just go back to normal, peaceful sleep, and the night terror will be forever forgotten (for them at least… it may be a bit harder for you).

When should I see a doctor about night terrors?

Listen, it’s a logical jump to think any scenario involving the word “terror” should include seeking medical guidance. But as a parent, you really have no reason to be terrified of these nocturnal episodes. So, don’t speed-dial the after-hours-emergency-line every time your child has a night terror. However, if you feel like your child is a risk to themself during night terrors, you should absolutely bring it up with your child’s doctor.