As your child grows and develops, they will inevitably have some wakeful nights. As a parent, I hate nothing more than being helpless against my child’s struggles. Here’s how to tell between nightmares and night terrors, and some tips to help you all get back to sleep.

I have done research, as well as added my own three years’ experience; however, I am not a medical professional. I do hope that this article can help you and your child, but of course contact your pediatrician with questions or concerns.

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We think of nightmares as frightening dreams which may result from something we’ve seen recently. And this makes nightmares pretty straightforward: they’re essentially a scary dream which wakes up the child. The child usually can remember what the dream was about, and they sometimes are reluctant to go back to sleep.

Night Terrors

Night terrors are more complex than nightmares. A child gets a night terror usually after they’ve been asleep for just a few hours (with my son, it’s about 2 hours on the dot every time). These happen during short sleep cycles and aren’t caused by any one particular thing. The night terror might start as a whimper or a cry, and looks like a panic attack. My son kicks his legs and squirms like he’s dealing with anxiety, and can’t keep still. He puts his hands in his mouth and just acts freaked out. He cries and whimpers, yet he can’t tell me what’s wrong.

The truth is, in a night terror your child isn’t really awake. Even if their eyes are open, a child is still asleep during a night terror. So trying to wake them up will only make things worse.

Doing a speedy diagnostic is essential, since you should deal with a nightmare and a night terror quite differently.

How to Help

First, quickly figure out what you’re dealing with. Is it a nightmare? – if the child is awake and able to converse with you, then yes. If they’re not really responsive and acting panicky, then it’s a night terror. Doing a speedy diagnostic is essential, since you should deal with a nightmare and a night terror quite differently.

With a nightmare, reassure your child that they’re safe and you are with them. They’re awake so you can talk to them normally. But don’t turn on all the lights (or the tv or iPad), as this can mess with their melatonin levels and make it harder for them to go back to sleep. Keep things dark and quiet, comforting them and letting them calm down.

learn how to diagnose and comfort your child

learn how to diagnose and comfort your child

It might also help to turn the “story” of the nightmare into something silly so that the child isn’t scared (this is a great idea from this Stanford article). Be careful to not belittle your child’s fear or make them feel silly for having been afraid; it’s important that you validate their fear (it’s very real to them, I assure you!). But you can turn their fear into a silly story by finding a “solution” which will help your child not be afraid anymore. Maybe “the monster in the closet” is from Monsters Inc and he was about to tell your kid the funniest joke ever! Or he forgot to put on his pants, so he went home and cried to his Mommy.  Or it wasn’t really a monster, but your guardian angel – they just have a cold and were snoring.

All I can really do is be present, calm, and patient.

A night terror is much more heartbreaking to deal with; I hurt for my child whenever he’s having one, because you basically have to wait it out. Make sure the child can’t hurt themselves or do anything unsafe, but otherwise don’t attempt to hold them in a hug or pick them up. They won’t want water or a snack; remember, they’re not really awake. Just stay close by, talk to them quietly, and otherwise keep their nighttime environment the same. Eventually they will calm down and can go back to sleep. (With my son it can take upwards of 30 minutes to an hour, but apparently this is longer than normal, which is ok too).

If you’re like me, what makes a night terror especially difficult is that I can’t comfort my child; if I wake him up it will startle him and worsen the situation (much like sleepwalking). So I can’t hold him and rock him like I normally would. And my son’s last a really long time; all I can really do is be present, calm, and patient. Luckily it isn’t hard on him, even though it’s difficult for me to feel so helpless. And he doesn’t remember it in the morning.

Hopefully now you have a better understanding of what your child is experiencing when they wake up in the night. Make a diagnosis of what your child is going through, and you will both be able to go back to sleep quickly and safely.

As with anything else, consult your pediatrician if you have any concerns, see any other unusual behaviors, or feel that your child is having episodes too frequently.