The Differences Between Night Terrors and Nightmares in Toddlers and Tips to Manage

As a parent myself, I know how disturbing it can be to be woken in the middle of the night to the sound of your child screaming due to a nightmare or a night terror.  Sleep disturbances can be common in toddlers and children and can be a cause of concern for parents. Two main sleep disturbances in this age group are night terror and nightmares. Both can be confusing and distressing for both the child and the parents. However, it is important to differentiate between night terrors and nightmares as they have distinct characteristics and require different approaches for management.

Understanding Night Terrors in Children

Night terrors are a type of sleep disturbance that occurs during the non-REM sleep phase. Unlike nightmares, which happen during REM sleep, night terrors are characterized by sudden episodes of intense fear and agitation. These episodes can last for a few minutes to half an hour and usually happen in the first few hours after the child falls asleep.

One of the biggest signals that your child is experiencing a night terror episode, is that your child may appear to be awake but is actually still in a deep sleep. They may cry, scream, thrash around, and have a rapid heart rate. However, they are often unaware of their surroundings and are difficult to console. Night terrors are different from nightmares in that the child does not have any memory of the episode upon waking up. This can be quite challenging for parents, as they may not understand why their child is so upset and inconsolable during the night.

How to Handle Night Terrors in Toddlers

When a toddler experiences a night terror episode, it is important for parents to remain calm and avoid trying to wake the child up. Unlike with nightmares, waking up a child during a night terror episode can prolong the episode and make it more intense. Instead, parents should ensure that the child is safe and cannot harm themselves during the episode. It is also helpful to establish a soothing bedtime routine and create a calm sleep environment to reduce the likelihood of night terrors. According to the Mayo Clinic and other research, night terrors can be genetic. Night terrors are also believed to be caused by a variety of other factors, with the main two being overtiredness and being overheated.  So, to help manage these night terrors:

  1.  Check the temperature of your child’s room.  Make sure that it is between 18 to 22 degrees C (68-72 F).  Make sure that they are are not too warm in their pajamas or under a blanket that it too warm.
  2. Check your child’s schedule.  Make sure that they are getting up at the same time every morning and going to bed close to the same time everyday.  Bedtime should be between 7 pm and 8pm and make sure that they are getting 12-14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period.
  3. Make sure that they have a consistent, calming bedtime routine each evening.

Nightmares in Toddlers: Why are they different from Night Terrors?

Nightmares, unlike night terrors, occur during the REM sleep phase and are characterized by vivid and often frightening dreams. Unlike night terrors, nightmares are more likely to be remembered by the child upon waking up. Nightmares can cause a child to wake up in the middle of the night and be fearful of going back to sleep. During a nightmare, a toddler may wake up crying, sweating, and feeling scared. They may be able to describe the dream they had and seek comfort from their parents. Nightmares can be triggered by a variety of factors, such as stress, anxiety, or exposure to scary or disturbing content.

Helping Toddlers Cope with Nightmares

When a toddler has a nightmare, it is important for parents to provide comfort and reassurance. They should listen to the child’s concerns and offer a soothing presence. There are some tips that can help to create a safe and comforting sleep environment,  helping to reduce the occurrence of nightmares.

  1. Make sure that your child is following a good bedtime schedule and getting between 12-14 hours of sleep in a 24 hour period.
  2. Make sure that they have a consistent, calming bedtime routine.
  3. If having regular occurrences, there are strategies that you can use to ease any fears or anxieties. For more help with this, read my article 7 Tips to Ease Your Child’s Fear of the Dark.
  4. Try using a soft yellow, orange or red glow night light, playing white noise, or using a favorite stuffed animal or blanket as a source of comfort.

Support for Toddler Who Suffer From Night Terrors or Nightmares

While night terrors and nightmares in toddlers are considered normal, there are certain instances where it may be necessary to seek professional help. If the sleep disturbances are frequent, severe, or significantly impacting the child’s quality of life, it is important to consult with a pediatrician or a sleep consultant (Like Me!).  We can help identify any underlying issues and provide guidance on how to manage the sleep disturbances effectively.

Understanding the differences between night terrors and nightmares in toddlers can be so helpful in effectively managing and supporting your child. Remember to start by creating a calm sleep environment, establishing a soothing bedtime routine, and making sure that your child is getting enough sleep at night.  If the sleep disturbances are becoming frequent or significantly impact the child’s well-being, I recommend reaching out to your family doctor or feel free to send me an email here.  I am happy to chat more and send you resources to help you and your toddler get that much needed sleep that we all need!

Free Download For Parents

The Five Steps to Getting Your Child to Sleep Tonight!

Sign Up to Get your FREE copy of my “Getting Started Guide”.