How Night Terrors Differ from Nightmares and What You Can Do

Most of us have experienced nightmares, but if anyone in your family has ever had night terrors, you’ll understand they’re a totally different animal.

One of my family members has suffered from night terrors for years, so I have firsthand experience with how truly frightening they can be, especially if you don’t understand anything about them.


How Are Night Terrors Different From Nightmares?

Night terrors most often occur during the first third of the sleep cycle and are often characterized by intense episodes of crying, screaming or fear during sleep. It can be difficult to awaken a person who is experiencing night terrors and oftentimes they will not remember anything about them afterwards. According to WebMD, “night terrors typically occur in children ages 3-12, with a peak onset at age 3-1/2.” “An estimated 1%-6%of children experience night terrors and boys and girls are equally effected.”

When Do Night Terrors Most Commonly Occur?

Sleep is divided into two categories of REM and non-REM sleep. Most night terrors occur during the non-REM portion of sleep, which consists of the first two hours after a person falls asleep. By contrast, common nightmares usually occur during the REM portion of sleep, which occurs after the non-REM sleep phase has finished and are not nearly as dramatic or frightening as the symptoms of night terrors.

What Are the Causes of Night Terrors?

Although much still remains unsolved about their origin, the Mayo Clinic notes that factors such as Stress, Fatigue, Sleep Deprivation, Anxiety, Fever (in children) Lights and Noise or Sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings may all be elements that can contribute to producing night terrors. In adults, there may be additional elements like alcohol, drug abuse, sleeping pills and abusive medication use that might also contribute.

What Can You Do to Help Alleviate Night Terrors?

While most children will usually outgrow night terrors as they get older, there can be some things you might try to help diminish them in the meantime. Dr. Tanya Altmann, who is a practicing Pediatrician in Southern California, notes that “Night terrors generally occur around the same time every night", "try waking up your child about 15-30 minutes prior the the episode.” The idea behind doing this is it might break their sleep cycle and cause their body to bypass the night terrors and move smoothly into the next stage of sleep.

If you hear your child having an episode of night terrors, the best thing you can do is keep the room lights low and gently reassure them with a soft calming voice that you are there with them until the episode passes. As alarming as it can be to witness an intense episode of night terrors, most people who experience them will won’t remember anything about the episode the next day.

If your child appears to be having severely disruptive episodes of night terrors or if you just have concerns and questions as a parent that you feel need to be answered, you should always seek the professional advice of your pediatrician or family physician.