Canaries goalkeeper John Ruddy and Forest striker Nathan Tyson contrived to gift the visitors a bizarre opener before Grant Holt restored parity with his 20th league goal of the season.
Andrew Surman used excellent positional sense to complete a first-half comeback and give the Norfolk club the advantage in the promotion chase over rivals Cardiff and Swansea until at least tomorrow afternoon.
Forest were ahead in unorthodox fashion after only three minutes. Norwich shotstopper Ruddy raced to the edge of his area to deal with a loose ball, only to cannon his clearance against the onrushing Tyson, the ball looping wildly into the net to the former Everton man's horror.
However, four minutes later the hosts were back in the match. Former Forest striker Holt rose to meet David Fox's lofted free-kick, heading beyond Lee Camp to equalise.
Young right-back Brendan Moloney made a dynamic foray up the Carrow Road pitch in the 19th minute, dinking inside the area to send a low shot agonisingly past Ruddy's right-hand post.
With 21 minutes played, Surman twisted and turned on the edge of the Forest box, and for lack of an opening, tried an audacious lob which bobbled wide to the disappointment of the home fans.
The Reds could have retaken the lead when Guy Moussi received an incisive ball from McGugan in the box but clipped his shot against the Norwich upright after 29 minutes.
The consistent attacking prowess of the home side would pay dividends again in the 37th minute, Surman beating the offside trap expertly to connect with Holt's weighted through-ball and clip beyond Camp to send the Canaries in ahead at half-time.
Jackson had the first chance of the second half, chasing the ball down in the Forest box and forcing Camp to save with his feet.
On 53 minutes, Jackson was on hand to force another strong save from Camp with a bullet header as Norwich continued to break with intensity.
As the game entered the final half-hour, both sides continued to press forward, Forest exposing the wings with the blistering pace of McGugan and Tyson. The former should have done better in the 69th minute when he screwed his drive narrowly over the bar with his team-mates screaming for the pass.
Jackson continued to menace the Forest defence and was unlucky not to double the advantage in the 81st minute when he headed wide of goal from close range.
Paul Konchesky was dismissed in injury time after picking up a second yellow card to further compound Forest's disappointment as the Canaries held on for three valuable points.