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What are Some Differences Between Night Terrors and Nightmares?

Tricia Christensen
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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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.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.
Discussion Comments
By anon325869 — On Mar 18, 2013

I have not been having night terrors, but just nightmares, although I have had four nightmares in the past two days (I'd wake up then sleep again) and three of them were scary.

The first one wasn't that scary. It was about me in my house and some friends came over then a weird guy appeared in the front yard and told me something bad is coming soon then I saw green fog behind him. The plague was here and I panicked in my dream, but everyone else was completely frozen. Then I woke up, and the creepy thing was my room was green, outside was green (but the sky), but my house wasn't.

The second one was creepy. It was about my older brother mutating and becoming a demon along with my closest friend and only a fence that disintegrates anyone with their DNA (I couldn't go through) and the fence was place around my house. I was trapped for what felt like hours, and I was running the whole time. (The fact that my favorite brother was trying to kill me terrified me.)

The third one was scary for me. It was about my father going crazy from all of his working, and he appeared at my house trying to kill my brother and I and we couldn't fight back because he has a black belt in karate (he may be old but he doesn't act like it.) and carrying a knife then he charged us, so we ran into the house and into my guest room, broke the window and jumped through it and ran to the front yard but (oddly enough) he split into two dads trying to kill us. I woke up there.

I can't remember the fourth very well, But I do remember that I ended up killing and entire country with my family and everyone I love inside it.

Quite long isn't it? And it's more terrifying when you have no control over what happens.

By anon324665 — On Mar 12, 2013

I am a 30 year old man. I had night terrors from the age of 3 to 7 and again in my early teens. I had the same dream every time and to this day even when awake I get a distant feeling and the same fear comes back. I would wake up so confused and apparently get violent and not know who anyone was I do not remember this. I would go to hospital but was never medicated.

I still think about it to this day and came upon this post and thought I would share. My dream was weird. A repetitive voice telling me something then i would be running in a dark space being chased and I just remember flags, a building and the alphabet. Anyway, it was so terrifying. One time when I was 13 I woke up terrified in a bath tub full of water fully clothed, home alone. Who knows? I hope they never come back

By anon312050 — On Jan 04, 2013

I sometimes get night terrors. My nightmares are scary, but they aren't usually to the point of how it's been lately. I woke up last night two times, I think, sweating. My dream had my grandmother stabbing me with a pair of scissors(?) and I woke up feeling a little scared, but I was completely calm in the dream. Then I woke up again from another bad dream, but I was calm in the dream. No surprises or supernatural occurrences, no fighting happened. I was just calm.

Then I woke up screaming, sweaty, and my heart is pounding. I am not sure what is going on, but my boyfriend claims that I have been screaming in my sleep, even though I tell him my dreams are completely calm, to the point of that they are very predictable and boring. For me, this is strange.

My dreams are usually vivid and either really scary or I am killing zombies for pleasure. Not much frightens me in them, since I have a lot of control, but I still can't sleep well. Is it stress from school, moving, taxes, and my long struggle with depression? Or am I getting hit with the side affects of the various medications I had to take as a child? Or even is it just my hormones going haywire from puberty? Help!

By anon280351 — On Jul 17, 2012

I also have what I would call "night terrors". I am 45 and I have had them all my life. As a child, I would wake up in a total panic screaming after fighting to get awake. Even now, when I have these episodes I have a very difficult time waking up and often have a few moments where I am stuck between wakefulness and sleep and the world is very surreal (and still scary). I will thrash about and scream or muffle a scream that I can't get out.

It scares my poor husband especially since he has a hard time waking me up. I do not know in my dream that I am dreaming; it seems real.

Usually I am being attacked in the dark by something unknown, a man, or animal, or something not of this world. I often dream I cannot get the lights to come on and always no one will come to help me. It's really horrible and I am in a state of sheer terror. As a child and well into adulthood, I would have these about once a week. Then about once a month until I changed my diet. About five months ago, I went on an all organic diet and I'm avoiding preservatives and hormones in food. Also, no caffeine. I also stopped wearing most make-up because it has hormone disrupting ingredients in it. This has helped tremendously. I sleep much better and have only had one night terror since I did this.

For anyone who has these sleep problems or has a child who does, try for a month to go organic and see if it helps.

By anon264243 — On Apr 27, 2012

My 5 year old started screaming in the middle of the night three nights ago it has happened every night since. We caught him last night trying to leave the house, and he has never done this before. His dad and I are separated and have been for well over three years, and every time he wakes up, he is rambling about how he is scared his dad is going to go away forever (go to jail) because his dad is doing something bad, and then he grabs his mouth with the expression on his face like I shouldn't have said that and then acts like he didn't say that. When asked, he says he doesn't remember, then he just starts shaking violently and says he needs to go outside over and over again. Are these night terrors? Please help. I'm not sure what to do.

By anon244150 — On Jan 31, 2012

I'm not certain that what I've experienced is classed as a night terror, but I'm pretty sure it's not simply a nightmare because after I wake, there is an almost overpowering sense of dread/terror and I have difficulty separating the dream from reality.

I've been told that, as a kid, I had night terrors. The earliest memory of them I have is when I was 14. I remember recognizing the dream, which included the following (and possibly more, but these are all I ever remember): I was climbing to the top of a pyramid of boulders; I was something like a worm, in a line, insignificant. There was an intersection of some sort (on the human scale), where points can be scored (not by me because I'm a worm), and when people score points, I become more insignificant. I am handing out medicine to people in a line, and if I got the medicine/dose wrong, something really bad was going to happen.

When I woke, I had the nearly overwhelming feeling that, if I didn't turn off all the electricity in the house, the world would end (I settled for turning off my alarm clock, temporarily, before I forced myself to overcome that terror).

These dreams occur every 12-18 months, but they have progressed to a more personal nature, with someone dying, and the waking feeling that it would be incredibly ironic if they actually had (yes, ironic), and I needed to see/talk to them to check to make sure they are actually alive. More recently, the feeling has come as I go to bed, and I haven't had one of the dreams in about three or so years (with the waking-terror coming as frequently as the dreams did).

By anon199501 — On Jul 23, 2011

My son is four months old and he has what seems like night terrors. He starts screaming for a few minutes and then stops. Starts up again and it usually lasts a few minutes. He's a very happy baby and this is really starting to scare me. He seems sound asleep. He would cry in the middle of the night once and a while for a minute or so, but now it's starting and lasting longer. Any ideas?

By anon171680 — On May 01, 2011

I'm sixteen and i have both nightmares and night terrors -- sometimes, most often, mixed together. mine normally start as nightmares and end up as night terrors. i can usually remember every detail and tend to wake myself up with my screaming or talking or gyrations.

However, sometimes i remember my dreams until i try to tell someone, then my mind just goes blank. this morning i woke up from a nightmare. i was shaking and sweaty and terrified. i dreamed of porcelain dolls. once i woke up and calmed down i began to remember every last detail on their faces and what happened. i went and talked to my brother and he normally calms me down.

90 percent of the time when i have a night terror, my brother is there to witness them. when i finally stop screaming, he wakes me up and tells me what i did and then i tell him what i saw. almost every time i have one i can recall all of it.

By anon144028 — On Jan 18, 2011

I have a recurring night terror. I have it at least once a year, normally before I get the flu or something of the sort. I can never exactly remember it, but I remember it being scary, and suffocating. Last time, I woke up to find my sister standing over me. I screamed at the sheep on her pyjamas, and only calmed down after a minute of crying on her shoulder and realizing it was her.

By anon141196 — On Jan 09, 2011

I'm fifteen and I have night terrors about twice a month maybe more. Sometimes my mum just tells me in the morning that I was creaming and crying and I can't remember it. Other time I feel like I have woken up but I can see bugs everywhere. On my walls, floor and in my bed. When this happens I jump out of bed and run to my light switch and turn on the light. This is when I really wake up.

I'm standing next to my light switch with my heart beating really fast, sweaty and a horrible sense of fear for a couple of seconds before I realize there is nothing to be scared of. Usually at this point my mum and dad will start telling me i was screaming and asking if i was OK. Sometimes I don't remember anything but find myself next my light switch with the light on and feeling terrified.

The last one I had I can't remember but my cousin was staying with me and when I woke up in the morning it turned out that during the night I had started screaming "Get it off! There is a tiger on my chest I can't breathe! Help! Get the tiger away.".

My cousin said I was screaming and sobbing and I think I must've scared the living daylights out of her because she called my mum and dad up. She said after a few minutes I just suddenly stopped and went back to sleep like nothing had happened.

Is it normal for a teenager to have them? Most sites say they stop after childhood usually? Should I go to the doctor? It isn't really affecting me that much and everyone in my family is used to them now. Should I go to the doctor about it?

By anon130890 — On Nov 30, 2010

I have night terrors and I am almost 60 years of age. I know because my husband has told me the next morning that I was screaming and moving around a lot and tried to get up but he would not let me and that I never woke up. I can recall the dreams just like it happened. So I know adults have night terrors too.

By anon108855 — On Sep 04, 2010

I have had night terrors for years now but all have the same basic situation. I know the difference between nightmares and terrors and believe me, it is a night terror. And unlike the description above, i also recollect every detail and every face that was there. I am able to give a storyline of every step and emotion i went through.

By anon100285 — On Jul 29, 2010

Not all night terrors fall into the description above. I suffered with them throughout childhood. Though I displayed the physical signs given above, it was always the same dream, and as soon as it started I knew what was coming but could do nothing to wake out of it. I could not be awoken from it either.

On the occasion when I didn’t go from terror back into sleep, I was able to tell my parents clearly what I was dreaming.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a The Health Board contributor, Tricia...
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