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What Are Night Terrors and How Can I Help My Child Through Them?

Night terrors—fits of screaming, flailing, and intense fear and dread—are terrifying for children and parents alike.

While we’re used to soothing our children after the occasional nightmare, during a night terror a child’s fear is usually irrational and inconsolable, no matter what you try.

Almost 40 percent of children (as well as a small percentage of adults) will experience occasional sleep disturbances that qualify as ‘night terrors.’ The good news for kids is that—while frightening—sleep terrors aren't usually dangerous and most children outgrow them in time. And the good news for parents is that there are a number of things you can do to help your kids until the terrors pass.

What Are Night Terrors?

Night terrors are episodes of “screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep.” Episodes may last a few seconds or a few minutes and rarely last longer. 

Unlike standard nightmares, in which the dreamer will wake up and may or may not recall details of the scary dream, a night terror involves someone who experiences a terrifying episode but remains asleep. Upon waking, the night terror sufferer generally doesn’t recall details. 

Night terrors usually happen in the first third to first half of the night. The good news is that they generally don’t happen during nap time so kids can get some additional rest if they have the opportunity to nap during the day.

Who Gets Night Terrors?

Night terrors generally happen between the ages of 4 and 12 and may be slightly more common among boys. A family history of night terrors or sleepwalking can also make a child more prone to experience them. 

Night terrors may also be more common in children who are:

  • overtired, ill, or stressed
  • taking a new medicine
  • sleeping in a new environment or away from home
  • not getting enough sleep
  • having too much caffeine

What Are the Symptoms of Night Terrors?

During a night terror, a child might:

  • Scream or shout in fright
  • Sit up in bed, terrified
  • Stare wide-eyed but stay asleep
  • Sweat, breathe heavily, and have a racing pulse
  • Kick and thrash
  • Be inconsolably upset
  • Possibly get out of bed and run around the house, or become aggressive if blocked or restrained

After a few minutes, the child will simply calm down and go back to sleep. They are unlikely to remember any of this the next day.

How to Help Your Child Cope With Night Terrors

While upsetting for parents and children alike, remember night terrors are generally harmless. The best way to deal with them is to wait patiently until they pass and make sure your child doesn’t hurt themselves if they’re thrashing or sleepwalking.

Don’t try to wake your child during a night terror. It rarely works, and children woken like this are likely to be confused and disoriented, and may take longer to go back to sleep. 

If your child has night terrors you can help prevent them by: 

  • having a set bedtime that you stick to: don’t let them stay up too late 
  • creating a simple, relaxing bedtime routine: sing some songs, or read a bedtime story
  • preventing your child from getting overtired: if they need to nap they should, or they can go to bed early
  • reducing stress: talk them through anything that’s bothering them, or try some pre-bed kiddie yoga or guided relaxation to help calm them before bed

One addition trick that can help if your child has a night terror around the same time every night is to try waking them up about 15–30 minutes before the night terror usually begins and see if that helps disrupt the occurrences of the terrors. This sleep stages chart may help you track the best time to wake your child.

When to See a Doctor

Occasional sleep terrors aren't a cause for concern, but you can mention them at a child’s regular doctor’s appointment. 

However, you should consult your doctor if sleep terrors:

  • Become more frequent
  • Routinely disrupt the sleep of the person with sleep terrors or other family members
  • Lead to safety concerns or injury
  • Result in daytime symptoms of excessive sleepiness or problems functioning
  • Continue beyond the teen years or start in adulthood

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