Nightmares and Night Terrors

How to tell the difference between nightmares and night terrors and what to do to help your child sleep better

Both nightmares and night terrors can be responsible for night wakings in toddlers and young children. Parents can often be unsure whether their toddler is waking from night terrors or if it is a bad dream that has caused the waking, both can be stressful and hard to deal with. There are ways to tell the difference between the two – I’ll set these out in this blog plus ways to deal with these wakings if your little one is experiencing either.


  • Typically occur in latter half of the night or towards the morning, during periods of REM sleep
  • Usually start around the age of 2 
  • Can often be sparked by something in particular e.g scary film or book, a change in routine, house move
  • Child is obviously awake and if old enough is able to articulate what they have dreamt about. They can usually be soothed and comforted by an adult during the night.

It’s important to try and find out the cause of the nightmare in order to be able to resolve the night wakings.

To help your child through periods of having nightmares ensure:

  • They are getting enough sleep for their age and aren’t overtired
  • That there is nothing in their room that could be causing them to feel afraid when they wake in the night – shadows, decor etc
  • That you acknowledge their fears and allow them to talk through them with you – offer plenty of reassurance, any time spent playing with you and spending time with you during the day will help them feel more confident during the night

Night Terrors

  • Typically occur in the first half of the night
  • Characterised by sudden, intense screaming, child’s eyes are often open but they won’t respond to you and any attempts to soothe them won’t work or even make them worse, the child can have increased heart rate and breathing and be sweating
  • Most likely the child will not remember that it happened in the morning

Night terrors can be particularly difficult for parents as they are unable to comfort the child or stop the night terror. The good news is that you’ll probably be more affected by them than your child as they’ll be blissfully unaware that anything even happened in the morning!

Prevention of night terrors is easier than trying to stop them once they’ve started:

  • Ensure that your child is getting enough sleep for their age
  • Stick with a consistent routine
  • Increase their consumption of vitamin D and B and give them plenty of magnesium-rich foods as these can all help aid restful sleep

Night terrors are often a phase that children do grow out of so stick with your usual routine and ensure your child doesn’t get overtired and hopefully they will pass soon.

Caro Graham is a Certified Sleepy Lambs Sleep Consultant based in Edinburgh, Scotland. Caro can support families locally or around the world. Book a FREE 15-minute call. Just click HERE to book!