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WebMD Expert Discussion: Nightmares or Night Terrors?

“Moooooommmmmmmeeeeeee!!!!”

The ear-splitting scream catapults you out of bed at 2 a.m. Your 4-year-old is crying inconsolably. Is it a nightmare or a night terror? What’s the difference? And what can you do about them?

WebMD Guest Expert Tanya Altmann, MD, helps worried parents identify the difference between nightmares and night terrors in the online WebMD discussion on Healthy Family Routines. Night terrors are tougher and scarier than nightmares, she says. Children in the grip of a night terror act like they’re awake, although they’re not. They may not realize you’re in the room and are hard to comfort. Night terrors typically occur during the first third of the night, Altmann says, while more standard nightmares come during the second half of the night.

Handling nightmares is a bit easier than night terrors, Altmann says. She prescribes a healthy sleep routine:

  • Before bed, avoid scary books or movies.
  • Don’t let your child surf the Internet before bed.
  • Keep nightlights and comfort objects (like blankets or animals) in the bedroom. (Yes, sometimes even for teens!)

It’s a mistake to try to wake a child who’s having night terrors, she says. Instead, keep lights dim and talk quietly and reassuringly until your child relaxes and goes back to sleep. They won't remember the night terror in the morning.

One woman vividly described the difficult days when her daughter, now 16, was 2 years old and prone to night terrors. She would “wake up” throwing bottles and screaming at her mother, unaware of what was going on around her. The night terrors left mom in tears. “I had to learn the ‘safe’ mode of when I could calm her,” she recalled.

Another reader wanted to know about some other sleep problems, like sleep talking. When children talk in their sleep, should parents worry? Not at all, says Altmann. Sleep-talking is common in adults and children. It usually doesn’t mean anything, although it may happen more often when someone is overtired or sick.

Discussion led by Tanya Altmann, MD Guest Expert
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Guest Expert What is a guest expert?

Tanya Altmann, MD, FAAP, is a best-selling author, a working mother, and a UCLA-trained pediatrician, practicing in Southern California.

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