What's the difference bewteen a nightmare and a night terror?

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

what's the difference between a nightmare and a night terror?

The stuff of horror-movie legends, children’s night-time fits of fancy often cause more distress for parents than they do kids. Night terrors, especially, raise alarm bells for those dealing with an inconsolable toddler in the middle of the night. In parenting gospel, What to Expect: The Toddler Years, author Heidi Murkoff breaks down the difference between a common nightmare and the threat of a night terror, and how they should be handled.


Nightmares are bad dreams and are usually the result of an overactive night, too much indulgence before bed and
a growing imagination that’s still struggling to grasp the difference between reality and fiction. Heidi recommends
keeping a calm bedtime routine with your child, which includes no alarming or scary TV or books before bedtime,
and Dad not playing ‘the tickle monster’ or ‘big bad wolf’ before shut eye. If your child wakes after a nightmare and is
scared, talk about the dream and reiterate that they’re safe and the monsters are not real.

‘When a toddler awakes from a nightmare, she feels vulnerable and afraid. More than anything, she needs
reassurance that she isn’t in danger,’ explains Heidi.

A night light could be a good investment to make them feel more secure.


Night terror

Night terrors can be more frightening for parents to witness. Kids can scream, thrash around in their bed, call out, have an outbreak of sweat and appear scared and disorientated while seemingly awake. More uncommon, most kids will experience at least one night terror before the age of six.

Unlike a nightmare, it’s recommended that you don’t try and wake your child during an episode.

‘Other than making certain that the house is safe for your toddler should he sleepwalk during a night terror and sitting by to see that he doesn’t hurt himself while thrashing around, there’s little you can do when an episode strikes. Don’t hug your child or hold him down; doing so will only make him more agitated – and he may even push you away,’ warns Heidi.

They usually last a few minutes to half an hour, and when they’re over you’ll find that your child goes peacefully back to sleep. Unlike a nightmare, they don’t usually remember the event the next morning.

If your child experiences night terrors regularly, it’s worth talking to your doctor about it as something else, such as nocturnal seizure disorder or medication, could be the underlying cause.


Joni van der Merwe

About Joni van der Merwe

Your Family’s Digital editor. Avid retweeter. When I’m not scrolling Instagram you’ll find me in my garden. Keen on DIY and I don’t believe there’s anything that can’t be fixed with some chalk paint.


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