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The difference between Night Terrors and Nightmares

Night terrors – which have a physiological cause – are very different from nightmares or other night awakenings caused by previous psychological trauma.


A few months after Shelia Jordan’s granddaughter was born, the infant survived a car wreck that killed her mother. Today, at 3 years old, Jordan’s granddaughter is haunted by nightmares triggered after she hears loud noises reminiscent of the car crash, Jordan believes.


Unlike night terrors, which are largely caused by a physical reaction, nightmares can be caused by the subconscious recollection of a traumatic incident, says Dr. Paul Saskin, clinical director of Sunrise Hospital’s Regional Center for Sleep Disorders in Las Vegas, Nev.


The difference between night terrors and nightmares is simple, Dr. Saskin says. With night terrors, the child has an active body and sleeping brain. With nightmares, the opposite is true, enabling the child to recount a nightmare and welcome reassurance from parents.