Night Terrors & Nightmares

In a night terror, your child is only partially awake. Although the child’s eyes are open and the child may be saying words, the child does not really seem to be responding to your efforts to calm him/her, or the words may seem confused. The next morning your child does not remember what happened. Night terrors tend to happen during the first few hours of the night.

What should I do if my child is having a night terror?

If your child is having a night terror then you should do as little as possible. Make sure your child is safe but otherwise leave your child alone. Since your child is not fully awake, your efforts to calm or soothe him or her do little except keep your child from falling back to sleep. In fact, your efforts to help the child can make the night terror last longer! Often, if you leave the child alone during night terrors, you will find the spells get shorter and shorter over subsequent nights.

If your child has night terrors at a predictable time most nights, you can “reset” your child’s sleep cycle to prevent the night terror. To do this, go into your child’s room about 30-45 minutes before his/her usual time of the night terror and gently wake him or her for just a few minutes. Then let him or her go back to sleep. Often, if you do this for several weeks, the night terrors will go away at least for a while.

What is a nightmare?

When your child has had a nightmare, he or she will be fully awake. Like in night terrors, the child will appear upset. Unlike night terrors, the child waking up from a nightmare will respond to you and should generally make sense when he or she talks to you. Nightmares often happen in the later part of the night.

What should I do if my child has a nightmare?

Calm your child, reassure your child that he/she is safe and that if the child gets scared again you will come back to him/her. Give the child his/her special stuffed animal, blanket, or nightlight to provide comfort and reassurance. The next day your child may remember his/her dream, and then you can talk about it and provide reassurance. If your child has frequent nightmares, make sure he/she doesn't read or watch anything even a bit scary until the child is older. If your child seems to have persistent problems with nightmares or has nightmares as well as daytime anxiety or worries, talk with your child’s doctor.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: October 2009; last update/revision: August 2018
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Medical Home Team
Reviewer: Jennifer Goldman, MD, MRP, FAAP