Health Library
Nightmares and Night Terrors

What Are Nightmares and Night Terrors?

Night terrors are different from nightmares. Night terrors are frequent, recurring episodes of screaming, crying, panic or fear during sleep. Night terrors most often occur within two hours of the time a child goes to sleep. They are harmless. Each episode will end in deep sleep. Night terrors most often end by age 12 or sooner.

Night Terrors

  • Your child is scared and is hard to wake up.
  • Your child's eyes are wide open but your child does not know that you are there.
  • Your child may think objects or persons in the room are scary.
  • This lasts from one to 30 minutes.
  • Your child often does not remember this in the morning.

How to Help Your Child With Night Terrors

  • Try to help your child return to normal sleep. You will not be able to wake your child from this, so do not try. Turn on the lights so that your child is less confused by shadows. Make soothing comments. Hold your child if it seems to help your child feel better. Shaking or shouting at your child may cause the child to become more upset.
  • Protect your child against injury. During a night terror, a child can fall down a stairway, run into a wall or break a window. Try to gently direct your child back to bed.
  • Prepare sitters for these episodes. Explain to people who care for your child what a night terror is and what to do if one happens.
  • Try to prevent night terrors. A night terror can be triggered if your child becomes overly tired. Be sure your child goes to bed at a regular time, and early enough to get enough sleep. Younger children may need to return to a daily nap.
  • For several nights, note how many minutes it is from the time your child falls asleep until the start of the night terror. Begin to wake your child up every 15 minutes before the expected time of the night terror. Keep your child fully awake and out of bed for five minutes. Keep waking your child like this for seven nights in a row. If the night terrors return when you stop waking your child, repeat as needed.

Night Terrors: Call Your Child's Doctor If:

While night terrors are not harmful, they can resemble other conditions or lead to problems for the child. Consult your child's doctor if you notice:

  • The child has drooling, jerking or stiffening.
  • Terrors happen after the seven nights of waking.
  • Terrors last longer than 30 minutes.
  • Your child does something dangerous during an episode.
  • Terrors happen during the second half of the night.
  • Your child has daytime fears.
  • You feel family stress may be a factor.
  • You have other questions or concerns about your child's night terrors.


Nightmares are scary dreams that wake children up and make them afraid to go back to sleep. Nightmares may happen for no known reason, but sometimes occur when your child has seen or heard things that are upsetting. These can be things that actually happen or are make-believe.

Having bad dreams every once in a while is normal at all ages after about 6 months of age. Nightmares often relate to developmental stages of a child: toddlers may dream about separation from their parents; preschoolers may dream about monsters or the dark; school-aged children may dream about death or real dangers. Nightmares most often happen during the last third of sleep, during REM (dream time) sleep.

How to Help Your Child With Nightmares

  • Comfort, reassure and cuddle your child.
  • Help your child talk about the bad dreams during the day.
  • Protect your child from seeing or hearing scary movies and TV shows.
  • Leave the bedroom door open (never close the door on a fearful child).
  • Provide a "security blanket" or toy for comfort.
  • Let your child go back to sleep in their own bed.
  • Do not spend a lot of time searching for "the monster."
  • During the bedtime routine, before your child goes to sleep, talk about happy or fun things.
  • Read some stories to your child about getting over nighttime fears.

Nightmares: Call Your Child's Doctor If:

  • The nightmares become worse or happen more often.
  • The fear causes problems with daytime activities.
  • You have other concerns or questions about your child's nightmares.

Last Updated 07/2021

Reviewed By Sara Hughes, RN

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