Night Terrors Differ From Nightmares

Unlike nightmares, they aren’t generally associated with stress or from watching a scary movie

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Awakening to the sound of a child screaming is upsetting to any parent, especially if the child cannot be roused readily. That can indicate a night terror, which differs from a nightmare.

Those who experience night terrors cannot easily be awakened. That is because they have entered rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a deeper state of sleep than when one first falls asleep.

“Night terrors typically happen within an hour of falling asleep,” said Edward D. Lewis MD, fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics, board certified pediatrician and owner of Lewis Pediatrics in Rochester. Lewis is the current president of the American Academy of Pediatrics NY Chapter 1.

Unlike a nightmare, “they won’t remember anything about it,” Lewis added.

No parent wants to hear their child crying in the night. While rousing children from a night terror seems like a good idea, it is both ineffective and unnecessary. If awakened from a night terror episode, children often feel temporarily confused, disoriented and irritable.

With a nightmare, children awaken to call for help. They can usually tell what they dreamed and why they feel upset. Parents’ efforts to comfort them can readily lull them back to sleep within a few minutes.

“There’s really nothing you can do about night terrors other than make sure they’re safe,” Lewis said.

Some children also thrash and move around during a night terror episode. Others may leave their beds, so it is important to ensure that they cannot hurt themselves.

Why night terrors happen is still not largely understood. Most of the time, they happen with young children.

“You often see night terrors during phases of growing or if sleep schedules are disrupted,” Lewis said. “If they’re happening frequently, wake the child up within 45 minutes of falling asleep.”

While waking a sleeping child seems counterintuitive for ensuring a good night’s rest, this strategy has proven successful in disrupting the sleep cycle and preventing night terrors. Most children at this age can easily fall back asleep from a peaceful awakening.

Night terrors represents a parasomnia condition like sleepwalking and sleep talking. As such, night terrors may run in families.

Lewis added that night terrors may also happen when a child is undergoing a major change in development, such as when their language improves in a short period of time.

Night terrors, unlike nightmares, are not generally associated with stress or from watching a scary movie with an older sibling. Fortunately, children do not later remember what frightened them during a night terror episode and the experience will not bother them the next day.

“It’s an impact on the people around them, not the children,” said Michael Martin, MD, pediatrician with Gladbrook Pediatrics in Rochester. “I counsel parents to see if their child is awake. If they say they’re scared, offer comfort. If they’re not awake, just make sure he or she is safe. Wait for it to end and not worry about it. It doesn’t cause damage to the person experiencing it.”

He added that in most cases, night terrors may last a few weeks before children outgrow them. If not, they can always consult with the pediatrician to screen for any other issues.