When Night Terrors Strike

One of the cruel ironies of parenthood is that sleeping through the night doesn’t actually happen the moment your child no longer requires frequent feedings.  It’s the carrot people dangle in front of you to help you cope with sleep deprivation, but the truth is that childhood is full of ups and downs, and with ups and downs comes sleep disturbance. 

Night terrors affect roughly 1-6% of children, with boys and girls equally affected.  It is generally found in children between the ages of 3-12 with a peak onset of 3 1/2, but it can manifest much sooner and last into the teen years in some cases.  My son experienced his first night terror at 18 months, and at 4 1/2; he is still prone to these nighttime episodes.

It’s important to know what a night terror is so that you can differentiate it from a nightmare.

Image via Katie Hurley

Symptoms:

  • Screaming
  • Sweating
  • Rapid breathing
  • Increased heart rate
  • Eyes open but unaware of your presence
  • Pupils may appear dilated
  • Child appears panicked and difficult to wake
  • Can include sleep walking and thrashing around the bed

Children are not awake during night terrors and will have no recollection of the event in the morning, making these episodes more traumatizing for the parent than the child. 

{ MORE: The Secret to Keeping Your Toddler in Bed All Night (It's So Simple!) }

Causes of night terrors:

  • Exhaustion is a frequent culprit
  • Illness
  • Stress
  • Fever
  • Medications that affect the central nervous system

Although the best advice is generally to sit near your child and providing soothing words during the event, there are a few things you can do to help prevent night terrors and to help your child during an episode.

Tips for coping with night terrors:

Stick to a routine:

If your child is prone to night terrors, routine is essential.  Exhaustion is often the main culprit of night terrors, and a finely tuned routine, which includes a specific bedtime, is the best defense.  Create a simple bedtime routine and stick to it, even on vacations and during long breaks from school.  The more consistent your child’s schedule, the more sleep he will get. 

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Try not to wake:

As terrifying as a night terror is for the parent watching the event, the child is generally completely unaware.  If a child happens to wake during the event, ask him if he wants to be held or simply rub his back while repeating, “It’s ok, mommy is here.”  Rousing a child from a night terror is likely to cause fear and intensify the experience.

Provide comfort:

Keep your voice low and soothing.  Repeat the same sentence over and over again.  Allow filtered light to enter the room through a cracked door, but avoid overhead lights and lamps. 

Consider safety:

If your child is prone to sleep walking or thrashing around during night terrors, take a look around to determine safety needs.  A gate at the top of the stairs will prevent a child from toppling down the stairs.  Removing a bedside table might prevent a head injury.  Consider extra pillows to line a wooden headboard.  Keep the side rails, even if you think your child has outgrown them. 

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Bring back the nap:

Believe me, I know how hard it can be to convince a child to nap once he decides he no longer needs them.  But exhaustion causes night terrors.  My son still naps for close to two hours per day.  When he doesn’t, he has at least one night terror.  Call it a break, call it quiet time, call it whatever you want – just put on some soothing music and try to help your child rest for an hour each day to help prevent further night terrors.

Share the information:

Make sure grandparents, babysitters, and all other caregivers know how to spot a night terror, what to do, and that it’s a possibility for your child. 

Has your child ever experienced a night terror?

What do you think?

When Night Terrors Strike

Katie Hurley, LCSW is a Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist and writer in Los Angeles, CA. She is the author of "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" and "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World". She earned her BA in Psychology and Women's Studies from Boston College and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania. She divides her time between her family, her private practice and her writing. Passionate about he ... More

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15 comments

  1. According to my parents I suffered from these on an almost weekly basis until I was about 8. Thankfully, my daughter is 9 and has seemed to avoid them. *knock on wood*

  2. AliciaBrown says:

    My son first had one when he was 10 months old. I rushed him to the ER because I couldn’t figure out why he was screaming. They said he had colic but I knew that wasn’t it (he’d had colic as a young baby and this was different). I finally figured out what it was when he was about 3. He is almost 11 now and he still occasionally has them. He screams and yells things but if we touch him it upsets him more. We just have to wait it out. A good thing is that he rarely gets out of bed when he has them. They are really horrible for us but they don’t really seem to bother him. A strict routine really does help. When he gets them now it’s usually when there has been a major change (moving, new baby, ect.).

  3. i’m surprised molestation wasn’t included in this.. it should have been. 1 in 4 girls are molested and night terrors are a symptom of molestation.

  4. Valerie says:

    oh im so sorry ! my husband has the same problem nite terrors when he was a child and to this day i have to wake him from sleep paralisys thats some scary stuff but the little one is starting to have the nite terrors so im hoping to god she doesnt get the sleep paralisys !!
    goodluck with ur son to hun i know thats scary to think about

  5. Valerie says:

    omg my pore baby has these she will be screaming and when we go to check on her she is still asleep :(( gotta be the exhaustion because she want take a nap anymore any tips on that i fought with her for a hour today even laid down with here she wasnt havent it !

  6. Grace says:

    i don’t know- let me know when you find out

  7. Grace says:

    my mother says my girls have these, she visited when my son was born…

  8. euszjpvb says:

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  9. Jesse says:

    My 2 month old son seems to have most of these symptoms. Is this a bad thing or just a phase?

  10. My 1 year old daughter has sleep terrors. She gets really violent. I’m still learning how to deal with it. I just found out yesterday.

  11. melyna says:

    I suffered from night terrors my entire childhood and now I have sleep paralisys. Its really horrible. I pray to god my baby boy don’t have to go thru the same thing

  12. SnuggleBugs says:

    Yeah night terrors are scary. As a child I would have them more often than not. I remember yelling they’re going to kill me. I think back and wonder what the neighbors thought. Now I have my first born son. The other day I noticed that he sometimes sleeps with his eyes cracked or open and with a blank stare (looking me in my face) but when I speek he jumps and start crying like if he had no idea I was even there. So I mention to his fother about my night terrors and acknowledged that it could happen with him too. It’s better to be prepared for it than to be startled by it. Thank you for blogging about night terrors you don’t hear about than that often.

  13. Elfie says:

    Soo not looking forward to this

  14. Carolyn says:

    My little baby girl is a week old now and she had lots of night terrors in the hospital and then her first few days at home. It would make me cringe hearing her whimper or scream out in her sleep and I got very nervous with her rapid breathing thinking something was terribly wrong with her. I’ve stuck to her routine of putting her to sleep and she’s doing a lot better now and sleeping 3 hours straight in between feedings.

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