Sleep Terror Disorder and Nightmares – Know The Difference

August 16, 2014 by  
Filed under Sleep Terror Disorder

If you’ve even awoke to the screams of your child in the night, you probably assumed your child was having a nightmare. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Let’s take a look at another condition known as Sleep Terror Disorder (or Night Terrors or pavor nocturnes). Maybe that is what you child was experiencing. These are different things, and different treatments are appropriate for sleep terror disorder episodes.

What A Night Terror Looks And Sounds Like

A night terror, or sleep terror disorder episode, can happen to adults as well as children, but it primarily affects children between ages 2 and 6. This event usually occurs from half an hour to three and a half hours after the child goes to sleep. The chilling screams or crying would lead a parent to believe they’ve had a bad dream, so the parent may go in to comfort the child. The strange thing is, a child in the midst of a night terror is not easily awakened. In fact, if he is awakened he will be more upset and disoriented. Left alone, the child will usually just go back to sleep and not even remember the episode at all.

During the event, there is usually intense anxiety, confusion, unresponsiveness, unusual movements, disorientation, and agitation. In the morning, they may vaguely remember something was terrifying, but remember little else about it.

And Nightmares?

Nightmares, on the other hand, are different. With a sleep terror disorder, the person doesn’t fully wake up as they will from a nightmare. Also, sleep terror disorder are not about a dream at all. There’s usually no specific situation or event that is dreamed, but the emotion of fear is intense. Though there is no certain scenario that triggers a sleep terror disorder episode, they can be based on a triggering emotion that some children remember as it is repeated over time. An example of a ‘emotional trigger” is to have to perform an impossible task, like counting the stars in the sky, or seeing the image of something such as the folds of the human brain. Because the emotion itself is so overpowering and strange, a sleep terror disorder episode can occur.

What Should Be Done?

If your child is having a nightmare, waking them up can help a lot. Getting them to think about things other than things in the nightmare will help them relax and be able to fall asleep again.

If, on the other hand, it was a sleep terror disorder episode, the best thing is to hold or rock the child or comfort the child in other ways, but not try to wake the child up. Usually, after a short period of screaming or crying, they will settle back into normal sleep mode. Children generally outgrow night terrors within a few weeks or month.