Difference Between Nightmares and Night Terrors

Posted by Tyler Britton on Oct 9, 2021 3:05:00 PM


What are Nightmares

Many of us have had nightmares, vivid dreams that cause feelings of fear, terror, anxiety, etc. Especially vivid or terrifying nightmares usually result in abruptly awakening from REM sleep with distinct memories of the dream. Returning to sleep after these experiences can be difficult and the nightmares are often remembered the next morning as well.

Naturally, children and adults react differently to nightmares. Anyone who has had a child wake up in the middle of the night screaming in terror can attest to this. For one, adults rarely have this reaction. Secondly, as a parent, it’s both scary and distressing to watch your child go through this, especially when it seems impossible to console your child.

Nightmares in children are most common in children who are 3-6 because these are the ages in which imagination is extremely active and children develop normal fears develop [WebMD].

What are Night Terrors

Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are a type of parasomnia that occur during the deepest stage of non-rapid eye movement sleep and cause arousal from sleep.

Though they are similar to nightmares, night terrors involve awakening from sleep in a terrified and usually confused state (nightmares don’t always result in awakening). During this time, people experiencing night terrors may:

  • Begin with a scream or shout
  • Sit up in bed and appear frightened
  • Stare wide-eyed
  • Sweat, breathe heavily, or have a racing pulse
  • Kick and thrash
  • Be very hard to fully awaken (to consciousness)
  • Be inconsolable
  • Get out of bed and run away

Naturally, witnessing the night terror of a loved one can be a troubling experience. People who experience night terrors usually don’t remember these events or the cause of the night terror.

Summary of Differences Between Nightmares and Night Terrors

  • Causes sleep disruption?
    • Night terrors: Yes
    • Nightmares: Yes
  • Consciously waken from sleep?
    • Night terrors: No
    • Nightmares: Yes
  • Remember cause of disruption?
    • Night terrors: No
    • Nightmares: Yes
  • Remember the actual disruption?
    • Night terrors: No
    • Nightmares: Yes

Causes of Nightmares and Night Terrors

The exact mechanisms that fuel nightmares and night terrors are not well understood. Perhaps the most important thing to point out is that, especially with children, nightmares and night terrors may be a normal coping mechanism with changes in life, such as starting school, moving, etc.

What we do know is some factors can influence how prone an adult or child is to experience either a nightmare or night terror are:

  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep schedule disruptions
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Fevers
  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder


Night terrors are more common if family members have a history of parasomnias (night terrors, sleep walking). Beyond disturbed sleep, resulting tiredness, or embarrassment, there are usually not long term risk factors associated with either night terrors or nightmares.

How to Respond to Nightmares

When children have nightmares that are vivid enough to elicit wakefulness, parents will often need to console their child and let the sensation/emotions of the nightmare fade. Some good measures for addressing nightmares in children are:

  • Avoid exposure to violent media
  • Try to avoid loud noises while they are sleeping, as nightmares can be triggered by external stimuli
  • Have sleep “security” measures, such as a blanket, stuffed animal, nightlight, essential oil, etc.
  • Once they calm down, help put them back to sleep

If children are experiencing an excessive amount of nightmares or nightmares with a recurring theme, there may be an underlying problem causing the nightmares, and you may want to consult with your pediatrician or a sleep specialist.

For both adults and children, if a previous traumatic event is associated with the nightmare, counseling may be an option to explore.

How to Respond to Night Terrors

Night terrors may need to be addressed differently because a child or spouse experiencing a night terror episode will likely react differently than someone awoken from a nightmare. How you respond to a night terror also depends largely on how the person experience the night terror is reacting. Some good approaches to address night terrors when someone is experience one are:

  • Make sure the sleeping environment is safe and risk free
  • Try and keep the person from harming themselves during the night terror if you are able
  • Gently and patiently attempt to coax them into wakefulness
  • Try to keep them from going back to sleep to quickly in order to avoid a second episode

Like nightmares, if the frequency of night terrors is extreme, you may want to consult with a healthcare practitioner or sleep specialist for further evaluation.

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