If you’ve ever had a child who suffers from night terrors, then you know how awful they can be. Night terrors happen during the deepest stage of sleep, which is usually within the first third of the night. Although the child may appear awake when it happens, during a true night terror, the child is still actually asleep. While night terrors can happen at any age, they are more common in the toddler and preschool age.

Characteristic behaviors during night terrors

  • Screaming/crying uncontrollably
  • Look awake, but actually still sleeping
  • Inconsolable
  • Sweating or shaking
  • Have a terrified or confused look
  • May not recognize you or allow you to hold him
  • (Will not remember a night terror upon wakening)

 The permanent solution

The answer is quite simple (a bit easier said than done however). You need to make sure your child goes to sleep at the exact same time every night. Get a rigid routine and do not vary from it. After a short while you will see a pattern develop. The night terrors will happen predictably at the same time every night. If the child falls asleep at the same time each night, the body will progress through the various stages of sleep at a predictable rate and you will be able to predict the time of the night terrors. Once you are at this stage, the solution is to simply go into the child’s room 15 mins before the child’s expected night terror and rouse the child. Go in, rub his back, call his name, and get him to wake up just enough to look at you and respond.  Then allow the child to go right back to sleep. This will pull the child out of the sleep cycle progression that he was in and prevent the night terror. You will continue to do this for a few nights in a row (most kids will take anywhere from 4-7 nights) to break the cycle.

The temporary solution

Until you figure out the exact timing and get your child on a perfect routine, there are a few pointers to help out with tonight’s night terror that may help.

  1. Stay calm
  2. Keep the child safe (if he’s trying to climb out of the crib/bed, gently restrain him)
  3. Don’t try and wake the child
  4. Wait it out, it will pass

Prevent recurrence:

  1. Get more sleep (children that don’t get enough sleep are more likely to have night terrors)
  2. Promote a stable environment (a lot of sleep disturbances are associated with chaotic environments. However, don’t over read this statement as I have lots of patients who have night terrors who come from perfectly stable home environments).

How are night terrors different from nightmares?

Nightmares are scary dreams. They happen in a completely different stage of sleep called REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, unlike night terrors. Nightmares typically happen in the later parts of the night (when dreaming is more likely). Oft times, nightmares will cause a child to wake and be afraid. A child will usually remember a nightmare, but not a night terror. Neither of which you’re likely to forget anytime soon!

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About The Author

Dr. Monica Wonnacott

I'm a pediatrician and a mom. I've been doing this doctor thing for 10 years, and love it. I'm known for giving parents the straight scoop without always sugar-coating it. And I believe in educating parents. The more you know, the better care you give your kids.

Dr. Monica Wonnacott

I'm a pediatrician and a mom. PediatricAnswers.com is my blog where parents can get the straight scoop on their child's health, largely based on my experience in the office and at home. I don't diagnose on the site, so please don't ask. These are just my opinions. Use this site as a resource. And trust your parent gut.

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