If your child or loved one suffers from frequent scary sleep disturbances, here's how to tell whether the problem is night terrors or nightmares and what you can do about them.

Night Terrors

Also known as sleep terrors, these are more common in children than adults. Night terrors usually occur within the first few hours of sleep and can be particularly alarming to parents, as they involve the child suddenly screaming, sweating, thrashing around, and breathing heavily. The child's eyes typically are wide, with dilated pupils, but he may not recognize you or other familiar people or objects. Because the child is only partially awake, you will be unable to calm him for as long as the episode lasts, which can be up to half an hour. Usually, the child returns to sleep without a problem and has no memory of the episode in the morning.

What you can do: Understand that your child is not conscious, so don't try to reason with her. Turn on the lights and hold her if it seems to soothe her, speak softly, and make sure she doesn't injure herself by falling out of bed or down stairs, as some children sleepwalk in the midst of a sleep terror.

How to prevent them: Make sure your child is getting enough sleep. Night terrors can be triggered by lack of sleep or an erratic sleep schedule. If you notice that your child has terrors at the same time each night, wake her about 15 minutes before the expected episode and keep her awake for five minutes or so.


Experienced most often by children but can occur at any age, nightmares are dreams that are particularly scary and upsetting. The vivid images produced by the unconscious awaken the sleeper toward the end of the sleep cycle, and can be vividly recalled. People usually have trouble going back to sleep after a nightmare. Nightmares can be a direct result of real-life trauma or stress.

What you can do: Comfort and cuddle your child if he's upset. Gently tuck him back into bed (if he's crawled into yours) and reassure him that the door will stay open. During the daytime, encourage him to talk about his nightmares and help him "rewrite" the ending so it's more pleasant.

How to prevent them: Avoid letting your child watch scary movies or read scary stories. Place a favorite toy or stuffed animal in bed with your child.




Lucille Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford. "Nightmares and Night Terrors." Web. www.lpch.org/DiseaseHealthInfo/HealthLibrary/growth/ntmares.html

National Sleep Foundation. "Nightmares and Sleep." Web. www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-related-problems/nightmares-and-sleep

Mayo Clinic. "Sleep Terrors (Night Terrors)." Web. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/night-terrors/DS01016

Mayo Clinic. "Nightmares." Web. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/nightmares/DS01010