Nightmares and Night Terrors: Do You Know the Difference?

Story has been sick this past week, and when she is sick, she usually has nightmares. Perhaps it is her labored breathing that makes her brain think she is being suffocated. Or maybe the fever conjures up fire monsters. Whatever she may be dreaming of, at least they are just nightmares. It could be worse. They could be night terrors.

For those of you who have never watched your child experience night terrors, let me just say it is its own brand of hell. There are several times in our parenting lives when we feel absolutely helpless – when we watch our children fall in slow motion, not able to get there fast enough; when our children’s feelings get hurt by another child at school and we have to remind ourselves that making that other child pay isn’t the right way to go; or when our children’s other parent doesn’t keep a promise to show up for a special occasion. These are awful moments. Our number-one job is to protect our children, but in some cases, we just can’t. And that feeling of helplessness, ugh, it’s just the worst feeling in the world. But the good thing about these moments is that we can comfort our children. We may not be able to make the hurts go away, but we can wrap our arms around them and let them know that they aren’t alone. We can provide comfort, that is, unless that moment has been brought on by a night terror.

Night terrors are different from nightmares. Nightmares are child-1307653__180dreams and occur during REM sleep in the later hours of the night. Children wake up from nightmares feeling upset or scared and can sometimes remember them the next day. The biggest difference for our purposes here is that you can comfort your child out of a nightmare. Night terrors, on the other hand, aren’t really dreams. They are period of, well, terror that children experience during non-REM sleep, usually a couple of hours after falling asleep. Night terrors are a physical reaction to fear. Children don’t tend to remember the episode the next day, and there aren’t any “dreams” or images associated with it.

In Story’s case, she would sit up in bed, scream, thrash around, and look like she was completely awake. I made the mistake of trying to comfort her several times. She hit me, screamed even louder, and did everything in her power to get away from me. Nothing soothed her, not my voice, not my arms, nothing. It was like she didn’t even recognize me. Those times I tried to calm her, the episode lasted longer. Eventually she would lie back down and fall asleep while I cried at the edge of the bed.

Story’s pediatrician explained night terrors to me. I had always thought they were just really bad nightmares. Little did I know that they were completely different experiences and therefore required completely different coping tactics. As hard as it was, I learned to not intervene when she had a night terror. My previous interventions had acted as a stimulant for her fear, and that’s why she fought me. The doctor told me to not touch her or engage her in any way. I can’t even begin to tell you how hard it was to watch her experience terror and not move to help her. The only thing I could do was make sure she didn’t slam into the wall or throw herself off the bed. Doc was right; during those times I sat by and watched my child suffer without lifting a finger to help her, the episodes passed in just a few moments. Story has absolutely no recollection of her night terrors, and they went away within a few months’ time. Still, it remains fresh in my mind, as all those helpless parenting moments do.

I hope that if your child does experience night terrors, take comfort in knowing that you aren’t alone, and if I could, I’d wrap my arms around you!

Note: As always, if your child is experiencing any difficulties sleeping, see your pediatrician.