Night Terrors

Night terrors are a partial waking from sleep with behaviors such as screaming, kicking, panic, sleep walking, thrashing or mumbling. They are harmless in nature but can put a child in a dangerous situation. Each episode will end in deep sleep.

The following are common characteristics of a night terror:

•    Your child is frightened but cannot be awakened or comforted.
•    Your child’s eyes are wide open but he or she does not know you are there.
•    Your child may think objects or persons in the room are scary.
•    The episode lasts from 10 to 30 minutes.
•    The episode occurs in the first few hours of the night.
•    Your child often does not remember the episode in the morning.

How do I help my child during a night terror?

Even if your child’s eyes are open, they may be in a sleep state. Waking the child may frighten them, so try to help them return to normal sleep by calming and comforting them. Turn on the lights so that your child is less confused by shadows. Make soothing comments. Hold your child if it seems to help him or her feel better. Shaking or shouting at your child may cause the child to become more upset. Protect your child against injury. During a night terror, a child can fall down a stairway, run into a wall or break a window. Try to gently direct your child back to bed.

Prepare babysitters for these episodes. Explain to people who care for your child what a night terror is and what to do if one happens.

Try to prevent night terrors. A night terror can be triggered if your child becomes overly tired. Be sure your child goes to bed at a regular time, and early enough to give him or her enough sleep. Younger children may need to return to a daily nap.

While night terrors are not harmful, they can resemble other conditions or lead to problems for the child. Consult your child’s doctor if you notice any of the following:

•    The child has drooling, jerking or stiffening.
•    Terrors happen after the seven nights of waking.
•    Terrors last longer than 30 minutes.
•    Your child does something dangerous during an episode.
•    Terrors happen during the second half of the night.
•    You feel family stress may be a factor.
•    You have other questions or concerns about your child’s night terrors.

Are night terrors and nightmares the same thing?

A night terror will not wake a child, and they won’t remember it. A nightmare, however, leaves your child fully awake, and he or she can remember the dream and talk about it. Nightmares may happen for no known reason, but sometimes occur when your child has seen or heard things that upset him or her. These can be things that actually happen or are make-believe. Nightmares often relate to developmental stages of a child: toddlers may dream about separation from their parents; preschoolers may dream about monsters or the dark; school-aged children may dream about death or real dangers.

How do I help my child with nightmares?

•    Comfort, reassure and cuddle your child.
•    Help your child talk about the bad dreams during the day.
•    Protect your child from seeing or hearing frightening movies and television shows.
•    Leave the bedroom door open (never close the door on a fearful child).
•    Provide a “security blanket” or toy for comfort.
•    Let your child go back to sleep in his or her own bed.
•    Do not spend a lot of time searching for “the monster.”
•    During the bedtime routine, before your child goes to sleep, talk about happy or fun things.
•    Read some stories to your child about getting over nighttime fears.

Consult your child’s doctor if the nightmares become worse or happen more often, if the fear interferes with daytime activities or if you have other concerns or questions about your child’s nightmares.