Night terrors are neurologically different than nightmares, and you CAN prevent them!

If you’ve ever observed your child having a night terror there’s no doubt it can be a horrible thing to witness. Your child may seem very agitated, like they're having a temper tantrum in their sleep, or appear frightened and thrash around or scream out in their sleep. Some may even be inconsolable for as long as 40 minutes! It's normal to feel powerless, confused for how to help, and deeply concerned. The good news is it's probably scarier for you as a parent than it is for your child.

Here's my top 5 things to know about this freaky phenomenon and how to prevent them from happening in the first place: 


1.    Night terrors are NOT the same as nightmares. And your child likely has no recollection of it.

Many parents assume their child is having nightmares, when in reality they’re seeing a night terror. So what’s the difference? Nightmares are dreams that occur during lighter REM sleep, and your child may remember the "bad dream".

Night terrors on the other hand are ‘partial arousals’ or "confusional episodes" that occur during the transition out of a deep sleep state, according to Dr. Ferber, author of "Solve your Child's Sleep Problems." Sometimes the transition out of a deep sleep state doesn’t go very "smoothly." Essentially, our brain sends a signal to switch out of deep sleep, but this signal will be abrupt — like flipping a switch — but it takes some time for our brains to fully make the transition from deep to light sleep. It's during this transition that night terrors have the potential to occur. When that transition out of deep sleep doesn't happen smoothly, children’s brain waves can show characteristics of being both deeply asleep and fully awake, resulting in a 'confusional episode' or night terror.

Children don't remember night terrors because they're a different, neurologically speaking, to straight-up dreams.

2.    If your child is having night terrors, they’re probably behind in sleep.

Tired toddler boy yawning with eyes closed in front of purple scribble and z's offset to the right.

They may even be chronically overtired. Being sleep deprived causes the body's 'homeostatic' sleep drive to be stronger. The homeostatic sleep drive is our body's way of protecting us from sleep deprivation. If we’re behind in sleep our body responds with a stronger drive to go to sleep — and stay asleep — to ensure we get the rest our body needs. When a child’s homeostatic sleep drive is in overdrive, their brain will be less willing to make that switch into a lighter more wakeful sleep. It's like their brain is saying "No thank you. I know you said it's time come out of deep sleep, but I still need more!"

Dr. Ferber describes this phenomenon as if the “waking and sleeping systems of the brain are fighting for control and the child will struggle to emerge from deep sleep." To me, it's almost like the physical characteristics of a night terror; the thrashing about, the screaming, etc. are the embodiment of a child receiving confusional signals from the brain around if it should be waking up or in deep sleep.

But you can improve night terrors by ensuring your child is getting adequate sleep:

- Keep to a regular schedule or daytime routine. This consistency helps children sleep more easily as it establishes a healthy circadian rhythm.

- You may need to continue napping if your child is under 3.5-4 years.

- Maintain an age appropriate bedtime to encourage enough night time sleep. This could be as early as 6-8pm depending on your child's age and stage.

- Establish a really relaxing bedtime routine to help your kiddo wind down and transition to sleep more easily. Avoid stimulating activities or screens one hour before bed to help them unwind.

When your kiddo is consistently getting more sleep, you should see those night terrors disappear. But of course I do recommend running any night terrors by your pediatrician so they can weigh in and help you rule out any other underlying causes.


3. Night terrors usually occur before midnight.

Children experience their deepest period of sleep in the first 3-4 hours of night sleep. Because night terrors occur during the transition out of their deep sleep cycle, night terrors usually occur 3-4 hours after they fall asleep for the night too — likely before midnight depending on your child's bedtime. Nightmares, which are dreams, are more likely occur later in the night or early morning hours when our brains are cycling through lighter REM sleep, when dreaming takes place.

4.    Night terrors are more common in children than adults.

That’s because children sleep more deeply than adults do. It’s simply easier for adults to transition between deep and light sleep because even our deep sleep is lighter than a child's. (No wonder we’re tired all the time!) More deep sleep = more potential to experience night terrors.


5.    Try not to intervene during an episode, but keep the environment safe.

The night terror will end naturally on its own and intervening may make things worse.  Ensure they're in a safe sleep environment for their age, and there’s no furniture or curtains they could pull or knock down during an episode. However, if you suspect your child could hurt themselves or others during an episode, calmly intervene.

If your little one is experiencing night terrors it's always a good idea to run it by your pediatrician so they can rule out other underlying causes.

But ultimately, rest assured that a night terror is not a bad dream, but a clue that your child is likely behind on some sleep. This is an opportunity to re-examine your routines to find ways to prioritize more sleep in your child's life. While this sounds simple on paper, achieving more sleep can be difficult in practice. If you need further support in getting more sleep in your life, I'd love to help! You can schedule a free discovery call with me here to see if I suit your fancy!


Sweet Dreams,


Source: Dr. Richard Ferber "Solve your Child’s Sleep Problems"

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