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. Hi my son is 9 months old and he’s starts crying hysterically (a whole different cry than his normal cry and a lot louder) and has a scared look on his face but he’s dead asleep. I pick him up and he’s limp crying. I try to wake him up and nothing works it takes about 5 minutes to sothe him and he stops crying, he’s still asleep but I can put him down and he will sleep normally. It is a nightmare and something I should be worried about? it’s happened about 5-6 times in the last 4 months

    • @Georgina, Thank you for writing to us. It does sound like your son is experiencing some sort of confusional event. While that can be scary for the parent, thankfully your son will not remember them (unlike a nightmare where we would wake up still feeling scared). Of course, if you are still concerned, I would mentioned it to your pediatrician at his next visit to get their input as we are not medical professionals. I am sorry you are experiencing this, and I hope it is something he grows out of sooner than later!

  2. My nefew is 8 months and is still not sleeping well through the night. He usually wakes up about 3 times a night and it can take him 20-60 mind to fall back to sleep. I can tell when he’s briefly awake and only needs a few minutes to fall back asleep but the other times he gets so upset and freaks out. I’m not sure what to do or what’s going on but I’m concerned. Any suggestions?

    • @Kylee – Thank you for stopping by our sleepy little village and for sharing. I know how scary and confusing this type of night waking can get. If you are concerned, you should consider reaching out to his healthcare provider who may be better able to shed some light on this situation for you. You should also know that many babies this age start going through a development-triggered sleep regression which can seriously disrupt their night sleep. You can read more about that regression, along with some tips for handling it, here:

      You didn’t mention how he generally falls back to sleep, but it’s also not uncommon for some babies this age to still need a night feeding, which can trigger an unhappy waking as well. If he relies heavily on help from a caregiver to fall back asleep, you all may want to consider sleep coaching or teaching him some sleep habits that can lead to more independent sleep and longer stretches of sleep. You can read more about that process here:

      Hang in there, Kylee, and please stop in to see us again soon!

  3. Thank you for sharing, my son has night terrors every so often. He will make up screaming and when I try to comfort him it’s like I’m not even there. He will scream and cry between 3-5 minutes and his eyes are usually open….

    • Hi @Lisa, thank you for sharing your experience. I am sorry to hear your son is experiencing night terrors, but I am glad you found the article helpful for if/when they do happen so you are able to get through. Thank you for using the Baby Sleep Site as a resource for sleep!

  4. My son will wake up screaming like he is being hurt every now and then. I’m a little worried because it is hard to get him to calm down. It’s scary for me because he sounds like he is in pain but there is nothing there to hurt him. He will be turning 5 months old at the end of the month(feb) soI don’t know what is going on. It happens maybe one night a week.

    • @Brittany Spencer – Hi and thank you for writing to us! I am sorry to hear your son has been waking up screaming suddenly for you! When my younger son was this age, he had a really bad startle reflex and something similar would happen – sort of like when you have a dream where you’re falling off a cliff and you jolt yourself awake. He would turn bright red and would scream and cry and I had to wait it out. That said, I feel your pain. If it is something similar, the good news is they usually grow out of that startle (or moro) reflex by about 6 months. If it is a night terror it is also something he can’t remember, although it feels traumatic for you! If this continues longer I would bring it up to your pediatrician to see if they have any input as well. Hopefully it is just his startle reflex and he will grow out of it soon! Hang in there! Thank you for using the Baby Sleep Site as a resource for sleep!

    • Hi @ Kristina – Thank you for visiting us! I am sorry that your LO is waking multiple times a night. That is so tough! Because you describe that she is doing the same thing 3-4 times per night, and seems to calm when you go to soothe her, I would suspect that this is not night terrors or confusional events, but perhaps just a sleep association in that she wakes/partially wakes when going through a sleep cycle, and “needs” your help to fall back to sleep. You may want to work on giving her less support each time, so she can gain the confidence and skills to fall back to sleep on her own. If you would like help with this, and if you are still concerned that the wakings are due to confusional events or night terrors, a visit to her doctor is a good idea, and one of our Sleep Consultants could take an in depth look and help you through this! Please contact us if you would like more help, or take a look at our email consultation services here:
      Good luck!

  5. Hi there is my daughter having night terrors, as she will sleep for about an hour and then will scream really flipping loud you would think she was in pain or something but when I go in there and give a hug after a bout 5 mins she will stop crying and go back to sleep this happens 3 or 4 times a night.

  6. My 4 month old son wakes up during the night, as if he had a horrible nightmare. Its happened a few times, it scares me, because he screams so so loud and looks so terrified. But he does stop crying and screaming when I pick him up, and falls sleep within the hour. I don’t know how to help the nightmares he has. And those cries and screams are from fright not anything else just terror.

    • @Kathy, thank you for writing to us. I am so sorry that your son has been waking up screaming! A similar thing happened to me when my son was about that age and it happened off an on until he was around 6 months or so. In our case, it was that age I had stopped swaddling him because he was rolling, and his startle reflex was acting up which would jolt him awake and it definitely seemed like a nightmare (for both of us). If you have recently stopped swaddling or never did, it’s possible this is causing the abrupt wake ups and screams, and it should pass in the next few months. Of course if you have any concern reach out to your pediatrician as well because I am not a medical professional! I am glad to hear you are able to comfort him to stop the crying and hope this is resolved for you soon. Thank you for using the Baby Sleep Site as a resource for sleep!

  7. My 13 week old was in a accident today! I was holding him while he was in the car chair, my dad was reversing his car with the door open, his foot got stuck under the brake the door hit me with a lot of force the car chair flew out my hands and rolled a few times! He screamed for less than 5 mins baby is absolutely fine thank god but Iv put him down for the night and he’s sobbing in his sleep on and off! He’s a very good baby and has slept through the night since he was 7 week without making a sound until the morning! Could he be dreaming of what happened this afternoon? I feel guilt ridden I’m still shaking I can’t imagine how he’s feeling.

    • Hi Beckie,
      Oh no, I’m so sorry to hear about your accident – I’m sure it was really scary! I’m glad everybody’s okay. It is possible that a young baby might experience some trauma from something like that, and it’s worth keeping an eye on, and checking in with a doctor if there’s any possibility of an injury. It’s also possible that he’s noticing that you’re stressed, and reacting to that. Finally, considering his age, there’s a chance that the timing is coincidentally coinciding with the beginning of the 4 month sleep regression, which can cause sleep interruptions and additional crying at night. We have an article on that regression here:
      Good luck with everything, and please let us know if you have any other questions!

  8. My 5 month old screams bloody murder and toss and turn every now and then during naps and bedtime in the middle of it for the past month or so. He isn’t fully awake but will wake himself up from crying and it gets worse if we let him be, or we comfort him and he goes back to sleep. Could this be confusional event or a weird terror thing he has? He seems pretty young to be having this happen after reading your article, is it more common than stated?

    • Hi Jessi,
      Thank you very much for using The Baby Sleep Site as a resource! I’m so sorry to hear about the night waking you’re describing, but based on your baby’s age and the sudden start of this behavior, I think you’re much more likely to be dealing with the 4 month regression than to be looking at night terrors. The regression is a common trouble spot around 4 to 5 months, and can include symptoms like shorter naps, a lot of night waking, more rolling around in the crib and crying, and general fussiness during the day. The good news is that it happens to every baby and is short-lived, usually lasting only about a month. We have an article describing this regression, with information on how you can help your son through it, here:
      I also want to mention that with any sudden change in behavior, we do recommend checking in with your pediatrician, just in case your son may have an ear infection, reflux, or some other medical issue affecting the quality of his sleep.
      I hope this helps, but please get in touch if we can help further. Good luck!

  9. Hello,
    I am wondering as to what is going on with my babygirl. Isabella will be 2 on 1/20. At night when putting her to sleep (she sleeps with me) she is usually fine but these last couple days have been different. she goes to bed with a water sippy cup and once in awhile throughout the night she will wake up for it and than go right back to sleep. Last night for some reason, she fell asleep and and about 2-3 hours later she awoke screaming bloody murder. she didn’t want me or her sippy cup ,even sat up and threw herself away from me. I tried consoling her and patting her back and nope she was not having ANY part of it. After a good 20 minutes she finally let me pat her back but still lightly continued to cry with slight resistance. This totally breaks my heart and i feel helpless. This is the 2nd time within this last week this exact thing occurred but the other was at 2:30am.
    please help as to which one it maybe and is it possible this will be be a reoccuring thing??
    Thank You

    • @Monica, thank you for your comment. I’m sorry that your little one has been having these bad dreams. I know how heart breaking it can be and how helpless you can feel. From what you’ve described, and because these events are happening earlier in the night, your daughter may be having a confusional event, which we cover in-depth in Part 1 of this series ( At this point, the best thing you can do is provide as much love and comfort as you can, without fully “waking” your child (since she may be in a partially-awakened state). By doing this, you may find that she falls back asleep much quicker. However, keep a close eye on her behavior and speak with your child’s doctor about anything you may feel is a cause for concern.

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