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. My little one is almost 14 months and the other night he scared us to death! He had been asleep for about 30-45 minutes when he started crying but not moving. He didn’t get up when I came into his room and when I picked him up his limbs and head were limp. He was crying but never opened his eyes and at one point seemed to either faint or fall asleep?? It was a matter of minutes but felt like much longer! We went to our closest children’s hospital where they performed several tests but never actually found out what happened. All of his test results were good. Could we have experienced a night terror?? My mind didn’t even go there until now-he’s a little young for terrors though. I’d appreciate any thoughts/comments!

    • Hi @Michelle, thank you for commenting. I am so sorry that happened, that sounds like it must have been very scary. I would continue to monitor it and see if it happens again, and should they persist, you may decide to do a sleep study or see if we can help. I am glad to hear all of his tests came back clear from the doctors. Some babies do cry between sleep cycles as well, so there is a possibility that is what happened as well. Regardless, I am sorry you had to experience that, and I do hope it doesn’t happen again! Thank you for using the Baby Sleep Site as a resource for sleep!

  2. My 6 month old rolled off his changing pad the other day when I bent down for half a second to get a shirt. Since then, he’s been waking in his crib and crying really hard and will only go back to sleep if I hold him and put him in bed with me. Could he be having nightmares that he’s falling? I can calm him down, but it takes a few minutes and I can’t get him to calm down and stay in his crib.

  3. @ Sheryl- I would guess, because she is not having problems at the sitters, that you can work to improve the situation. Here are a couple of links that you might find helpful in creating a strategy for helping teach her some loving limits regarding wake ups:

    Rewarding her “bravery” with a sticker chart may work just great!
    Best of luck!

    @ Renee- Crying upon waking is very common and your son is around the age where his sleep patterns are changing, and he may waken more and more easily. I do know how distressing this can be, as my son did the same thing at night at around the same age. It is normal, and if he is fine otherwise day and night, may outgrow it soon. Here is a link to an article that may be useful:
    Good luck!

  4. Most of the cases I’ve read about are for toddlers, 12 mos to 24 mos. My baby just turned 3 mos last week and has woke up twice today crying suddenly. From the literature it seems like it may be a night terror because it doesn’t last long. It has happened before, maybe a month ago and I brushed it off but now he’s hardly napped at all today because of it. It’s very distressing for me as he hardly ever cries and then wakes up suddenly screaming. I’m not sure if this is normal or if something could be triggering it.

  5. I am going thru the same thing with my daughter now she will be 2 in April, she has been an awesome sleeper all along always had a nap during the day usually 12-3 then bedtime at 8 or shortly after, I would put her down in her crib cover her up and she would say night nigth mommy and close the door and be done with it. Friday nigth i went in and checked on her like I always do, 5 min after I left the room she woke up screaming bloody murder it took till about 6 to calm her down and get her back to sleep.
    Now she wont go in her crib she refuses to lay down and just screams and crys until you take her out of her crib… I dont get it she wont nap she wont got to bed at night anymore… I know it has only been 5 days now but it is getting very frustrating for me to not know what is wrong with her… Im pretty sure its not night terrors I think she just had a nightmare… funny thing is tho my mother in law babysits for me when I go to work. She was there yesterday and at “reg nap time” she told her ba-ba’s granny grabbed the bottle warmer out of the cupboard and said night night granny bed time… Why is this happening at my house but not at the sitters?
    If anyone can help or give some advice that would be greatly apprecieated because I dont know what to do anymore…

  6. My daughter turned 2 in June. aprox 2 weeks ago after going through our normal sleep time routine my daughter woke up? screaming screams you only hear in horror movies! she had only been asleep aprox 1 hour or so (there was drool on the pillow to prove it). she explained that a scary man was in her crib and going to get her. We tried rocking, playing, reading books, milk etc. She was determined not to go into her bed! We attempted to put her pack and play in our room so she could be reassured being close to us….not so much…she screamed bloody murder everytime we attempted to put her in. she ended up sleeping inbetween us at aprox 4am then woke up at 0830 ready to start her day. The very next day the same thing occured except she had been asleep for aprox 4 hours. This keeps happening and I wonder is there anything we can do besides letting her “grow out of it”
    We have tried changing her night time routine a bit, reading bed time stories, changed her bed to a big girl bed (since she screamed at the sight of her crib) got her a night light….even staying in her room until she falls asleep!

    I am confused if these are nightmares or night terrors? She remembers them when she wakes up and wont stop talking about it.
    She has never been attached to objects (blankets, toys etc) and has now decided she has a “blankie?” I used to be able to leave her alone in her playroom for minimal amounts of time…now she freaks out if you are out of her line of sight!
    I know i am rambling im just concerned and REALLY TIRED!
    This is a child who used to sleep 10 hours at night and take a short nap during the day and is now terrifed to do either…..geeze help

  7. @ Danita & Lindsey- I recommend checking out Nicole’s series on sleep training where she discuss different options for how to help your baby learn to comfort themselves to sleep. This link is to the first post in the series and I recommend going through the whole series.

    I also recommend this post on Toddler night waking:

  8. Danita, I am having the same problem. In fact this is the first night I am trying to let him cry (after rocking him for over an hour), and it is so hard. Someone, please help us!

  9. For the past week my 13 month old son has been waking up a few hours after bed time, screaming and crying big fat tears. He stops crying when I walk into is bedroom and is quiet while I hold him and rock him. He seems to be awake and even giggles at me when we cuddle in the rocking chair. But to try and put him back in his crib is very difficult. As soon as I set him down he starts crying and screaming again. It takes several tries and a couple hours to get him to calm down enough and relax to go back to sleep. I don’t know what to do for him or why he’s all of a sudden started this. He’d been sleeping through the night very well for quite some time now. He’s been going to daycare for a couple months now and seems used to it, could it still be separation anxiety? I’m at a loss.

  10. I read your article with interest and would appreciate some feedback for my own situation. The last two days my 16mth old daughter woke from her two hour day time nap and made what I thought were her usual”i’m awake” cries. However when I entered the room she looked at me absolutely terrified- backed in the corner of the cot and screamed louder. The 1st time i picked her out of the cot she went limp trying to resist me touching her and then she ran to the corner of the room trying to hide behind a chair. She looked at me in terror and continued screaming/crying for 10mins finally let me hug her and then wimpered a bit- 10 mins after that she was back to normal. Today the same reaction when I entered her room but this time I left her in the cot and got her dad to come in – she went to him but still seemed scared of me. Clearly very distressing for me as I am her primary care giver and look after her full time and still breast feed first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Does this sound like night terrors -in the day? or should I search for some other explanation?

    • @Jacqueline That sounds very distressing for you. 🙁 I have not heard of night terrors during the day, but it sounds like maybe she was just half asleep and just confused (i.e. confusional event during a sleep cycle transition). Has it happened again? I doubt it’s you unless you got a drastic haicut or something big has happened in your home lately.

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