3 Ways to Tell a Nightmare from Night Terror

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Nightmares and night terrors are both scary and can cause sleep disturbances, but they are not the same thing. Knowing some of the main differences can help you understand what’s going on and discover possible steps you can take to improve sleep.

Nightmares occur during REM sleep. Nightmares, or dreams with explicit, unsettling content, occur most often during REM sleep, when the brain is most prone to vivid dreaming.  Because they happen during REM sleep, nightmares often occur later at night or early-morning hours when the brain reaches that part of the sleep cycle.  Night terrors, on the other hand, tend to occur earlier, during non-REM sleep.

Nightmares are vividly recalled. Typically, someone who experiences a nightmare will awaken immediately with a pretty clear recall of the bad dream. Often, children will want to talk about the bad dream and have their parent reassure them that everything is ok.

On the other hand, someone experiencing a night terror may shout, sleepwalk, or appear scared for several minutes before relaxing back into sleep. Later, that person will only have a vague recall of the dream. Although it can be distressing to witness, night terrors aren’t harmful and chances are the sleeper won’t even remember it in the morning.

Night terrors are more common in kids. While anyone can experience a nightmare or night terror, the latter is much more common in children than adults, especially if they’re between the ages of four and eight.  Night terrors typically go away on their own as a child gets older. Nightmares, meanwhile, can affect any age.

Whether the concern is night terrors or nightmares, if frightening dreams are keeping you or your child awake at night for several nights (or weeks) in a row, consider talking with your doctor or your child’s pediatrician. Sleep disruptions, whether you remember them or not, can negatively affect daytime energy levels, leading to a negative spiral of events. Discuss the situation with a medical expert to be sure your child—and you—get the good night’s sleep you need for a healthy life.