What Are Night Terrors? We Explore Why Children Have Them

23rd January 2020

Slumber Centre

Night terrors are most common in children aged between 3 to 8 years old. Night terrors are distinctly different from nightmares; however parents new to the experience of a child having a night terror may not be able to spot the difference straight away.

Night Terrors

It can be an upsetting experience to witness your child having a night terror, especially if you are unsure how to coax your child during this time. We’ve put together this useful guide to help distinguish the difference between a nightmare and a night terror and what you should do to help.

What is the difference between a nightmare and a night terror?

Night terrors

A night terror is a partial waking from sleep where a child may scream, shout, thrash around in panic, sit fully upright or even jump out of bed. The child’s eyes may be open but they’re not fully awake and most likely won’t recognise the presence of parents in the room. Episodes usually occur earlier on in the night and can continue from several minutes up to around 15.

Night terrors occur during the non-dream stage of sleep, meaning a night terror is not technically a dream, more a sudden reaction of fear that happens when moving from one sleep stage to another. They are most common in children with a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking behaviour.

They can be triggered by tiredness, a fever, certain types of medication and anything that could wake a child from deep sleep, such as needing the toilet or a sudden noise.

Although they can be disturbing for the parents to watch, unlike a nightmare the child will have no memory of the episode the next morning. Most children grow out of night terrors and thankfully they don’t cause any long-term psychological harm.


Nightmares are most common in children aged between 3 to 6 years old, with most children growing out of them as they get older. Unlike night terrors a child can usually recall the content of the dream with a degree of detail.

Nightmares usually occur later in the night and generate strong feelings of fear, distress or anxiety. Nightmares can happen for no known reason, however they are more likely to occur if the child has heard or seen something that has upset them such as a scary film.


What to do if your child has a night terror

Night terrors can be a frightening experience for parents to witness but they won’t harm the child. The most important thing is not to attempt to wake, intervene or interact with your child during an episode, unless they are unsafe. If you did attempt to wake your child they may not recognise you and become more agitated.

Although the child won’t recall the episode the day after, it might be worthwhile to have a chat to see if anything is worrying them that could potentially be the trigger for the episode, however it is important to do this in a way that doesn’t worry them.

If you notice the night terrors are becoming more frequent and at specific times, then you may find waking your child 15 minutes before the usual episode every night for a week could prevent future episodes, as this will disrupt their sleep pattern.

If your child is experiencing night terrors most nights or several times a night it would be advised to contact your GP.

What to do if your child has a nightmare

It goes without saying, but the first step should always be to comfort the child. Talking to your child during the day to discuss the bad dream and also to see if anything is worrying them at that time, can be very beneficial to help uncover what might be causing the nightmares.

Having a relaxing bedtime routine can help reduce the chances of a nightmare, this can be as simple as having a bath before bed.

If your child is experiencing repeated nightmares or a series of nightmares with a recurring theme, it is advised to consult with your GP. Likewise if the child’s nightmares are as a result of a stressful past experience it’s recommended to seek advice from a healthcare professional such as a counsellor.