Baby / Toddler Night Terrors and Nightmares: Part 2

Welcome to part 2 of the Night Terrors and Nightmares Series. If you are just joining us, you might want to start with part 1 where I go over night terrors in babies and toddlers.

What are Nightmares?

Nightmares are very scary dreams. They usually start as a normal dream and then they take a turn for the worst. We don’t remember every dream or nightmare. It’s only when we wake up at the end do we remember them, even if we just wake up briefly.

What age do nightmares start?

This, they don’t know for sure, but they do know by one year old, a child can definitely have a nightmare. It makes sense that it can and does happen sooner, but it’s hard to say how complex a dream can be at one day, one month, or 6 months old, but since nightmares occur during our “active sleep” (during rapid-eye-movement (REM) for those who want to know a bit more about the technical terms), it is possible even your newborn can have a dream and therefore, a nightmare. Newborns spend a good amount of time in this stage of sleep.

Since a one year old can’t talk or express himself that well, it’s hard to know just how complex his dreams are, but by two years old, when the imagination has really started to come alive, nightmares can get very specific. However, at this age, although they might understand a nightmare is just a dream and have an idea about what a dream is, when he wakes up, he might not fully understand the dream is over and still remain scared for a bit later.

As your child gets older, the understanding between dream and reality will get better and by 5 years old, she will have a much bigger grasp of the difference between dream and reality. Even when your child is older, it doesn’t mean the dreams won’t be scary, but they may not always need you to come for help (which I’m sure is a bittersweet feeling).

All children are different in their development, so the age that your child may or may not need you after a nightmare will vary.

Why do we have nightmares?

Everyone has nightmares at one time or another, but those with more emotional tension or upset during the day will probably have more nightmares, because nightmares usually come about from the daily struggles in your day. This will also depend on how sensitive the dreamer is. Nightmares are a very normal part of your child’s development and working through daily life struggles.

Night terrors vs. Nightmares

We learned last week when I described night terrors, that it’s important to distinguish night terrors from nightmares because how we resolve them will be very different. Night terrors or other confusional events will not result in your child being fully awake afterward, but with a nightmare, he will be and he will be clearly frightened.

With Night terrors you usually figure out your child is having one in the middle of it happening, but in a nightmare, you will only know it happened after it’s over and your child is awake and scared. It is also important to note that nightmares usually occur in the second half of the night while night terrors typically happen within the first few hours of the night. It is often hard to settle or calm a child having a night terror and he isn’t fully awake barely responding to you, but once it’s over he goes back to sleep quickly. After a nightmare, your child will feel comforted by you, but may or may not go back to sleep as easily depending on the age of your child and how scary the dream was.

Nightmares can be very scary and there are ways to try to limit night terrors and nightmares, how to handle each when you’re in the thick of things, and how to discourage any bad habits from forming. If you need help dealing with your toddler’s night terrors or nightmares, I encourage you to consider purchasing our comprehensive e-Book on toddler sleep, The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep. You can also contact us for more info. We’d love to help!

Share your nightmare/night terror stories or tips below!

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43 thoughts on “Baby / Toddler Night Terrors and Nightmares: Part 2”

  1. Big thank you for sharing! My 8 and half month old has literally started making puppy type noises in his sleep, then after a few minutes starts sobbing. When I picked him up he was still asleep but he wouldn’t respond to my voice or me stroking his hair (I was getting worried). However, I figured Google would be able to help and I stumbled on your information. You have put my mind at ease and I’m now ready if there are more. Thanks again 🙂

    • Hi @NJ – Thank you for visiting us and for taking the time to write! We are SO happy to hear that this article was helpful for you!
      Take care!

  2. My daughter recently had and accident that scared us both but she came out without a bump. 19 months old. Since then she will wake up multiple times a night saying “no momma no” whimpering a bit and then falling back asleep (if she even woke up I’m not sure she doesn’t sit up or anything). Is it possible the accident and her remembering how scared I was is affecting her sleep? She barely even cried but I did and she was more with me and asking if momma ok and wiping my tears.

    • @A Ritchey – Thank you for stopping by our sleepy little village and for sharing your story with us. I’m so glad to hear your little girl wasn’t hurt, though it sounds like it was quite a scary situation! It’s definitely possible this incident is sticking with her a bit. These kinds of things can show up at night time and in dreams, for sure. I would also encourage you to discuss this with her healthcare provider when you next get a chance as well. Hang in there!

  3. My son is 8 months old and since he was around 5 months he’ll have what seems like night terrors, but I was told he was too young. He’ll just start screaming crying out of nowhere in his sleep! He can’t be comforted and it happens so randomly. It usually happens within the first 30 mins of him falling asleep. It’s so scary to see and I never know what to do!

    • Hi @Leah, and thanks for sharing your experience with us. I am so sorry you’ve been going through this! If the problem persists, you could certainly do a sleep study to see what’s going on behind the scenes, or if you are confident they are night terrors and want help on how to handle these events, please let us know. Our team of sleep consultants regularly work with families who have gone through similar situations and have tricks up their sleeve and words of comfort to help you make it through (even though we cannot prevent the night terrors of course). If you are interested you can view our different options here: Hang in there and thanks for your comment!

  4. My son is 11 months old and recently the past few nights I believe he is having nightmares or night terrors? He pops up from being sound asleep and immediately screams and cries hysterically. I can’t comfort him, he pushes me away) and I usually can only get him to stop by offering a bottle so I was confused whether or not he woke cuz he was hungry. Tonight when it happened I trie calmly talking to him and then started singing and he stopped. I held him for a bit then put him back in his crib and he went to sleep. Last night it occurred at 2am and 5:30 am (he normally wakes at 730/8am). Tonight it happened at 11am. It breaks my heart when he is so upset!

    • @Angela, Thank you for sharing with us what’s been going on. I am sorry you son has been waking up in the night with what may be night terrors or a different kind of confusional event. It is certainly heartbreaking to see your little one so upset! I do hope things get better for him and you soon, but if this continues on you could of course mention it to your pediatrician, and let us know if you need more help handling them! Our highly-trained sleep consultants would certainly be able to help you feel more empowered with handling a situation like you described. Hang in there and I hope things improve soon!

  5. My one year old suddenly started waking up screaming, he has never been a great sleeper but suddenly i realised he was still asleep whilst screaming, i thought it may be nightmares however am sure its night terrors. I can not comfort him, in fact if i pick him up it gets worse. He usually settles again 4 to 5 minutes later. Its so scary to see but he smiles away in his sleep afterwards.

    • @Holly I’m sorry to hear your one year old has started this, but I’m sure it’s comforting to see his smiling sleeping face later. 🙂 Thank you for stopping by and commenting!

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