The differences between night terrors and nightmares are important to understand. A parent of young children may encounter both from time to time, with average age of night terrors occurring between the ages of 3 and 12 years old. Some children may experience night terrors sooner, while others continue to experience them into their teens. In contrast, nightmares may occur for all people from time to time, and occasionally children have particular difficulty for a short or long period of time with certain fearful nightmares that keep recurring. Night terrors may last much longer than nightmares, with the body remaining active and the child remembering none of the even once he or she wakes up.
One of the key differences between these nighttime events is that night terrors scare parents, while nightmares scare kids. When children have a night terror, they are still in a deep stage of sleep. They may look like they’re awake, scream, yell, thrash, get up and run around, but they are sleeping. They’ll usually refuse any offer of help and won’t recognize parents or caregivers. The fact that the body remains active and the child seems awake and in deep distress fools many parents into thinking they can help talk the child down from a night terror. This is ineffective, since the child won’t hear the parent, and any attempts to fully wake the child may create additional distress.
If children do wake during a night terror, which may last for a minute to as long as an hour, they will not remember anything of the event. They usually won’t require comfort and may simply seem confused if the parent is present in the middle of the night. In most cases, healthcare professionals recommend that a parent doesn’t try to wake children with night terrors, but simply make sure they are safe and secure in their sleeping space, restrain them gently as needed, and let them eventually fall back to sleep.
While night terrors and nightmares are both frightening, nightmares are the scary dreams that frighten kids (and plenty of adults too). Most children really remember their nightmares, and they can tell others about them if they wake. Moreover, anyone is more likely to wake when a nightmare is in progress because these occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, and the recall of dreams is most common during light sleep cycles.
When a child hustles to a parent's bed in the middle of the night with tales of terrible dreams, he or she really does need comfort and will benefit from it. This is very different from a night terror. No child will inform his or her parents of a night terror, since he or she won't remember having one, and if woken, couldn’t tell what happened.
These events may arise from different sources too. Poor sleep, extreme stress, fever, different types of medication, or merely lack of central nervous system maturity may result in night terrors. If these symptoms persist for more than a few weeks, it’s a good idea for parents to consult a pediatrician, and if they emerge in adolescents or adults, they are well worth mentioning to a medical professional. Nightmares may also occur because of stress, traumatic events (past or present), some medications, pregnancy — which may produce very lucid dreams — and various kinds of illness, especially when accompanied with fever.