When your child’s sleep is scary: night terrors

Several years ago we were sleeping soundly when the most disconcerting sound woke us: the sound of our not-quite-three-year-old’s feet running down the hall in the middle of the night!

We had become used to the idea that once in the crib, she was there for the night unless we came in to get her. To suddenly have someone in the house running toward us screaming about something that sounded vaguely like ‘Spiders!’ was a new type of scary for us…especially when she awoke the next morning without any recollection of the 5 minutes of terror she (we?!) experienced.

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Nightmares or something different?

Night terrors are different than nightmares. Typically, they affect children between the ages of 3-7 and may occur once or twice per month for some period of time. Night terrors can affect adults but are most common among boys age 5-7. They may run in families and episodes may last between 10-20 minutes.

Night terrors,or Pavor nocturnus as Latin speakers might say, are different than nightmares for two primary reasons:

  1. Night terrors occur in the transition between the 3rd and 4th stages of non-REM sleep….usually about 90 minutes after the child goes to sleep. Nightmares occur during REM sleep, which typically occurs much later in the sleep cycle.
  2. Unlike nightmares, children seldom remember night terror episodes.

Though our daughter’s episode was an isolated instance, friends have described similarly frightening intensity and disruption that night terrors can bring to a household on a more frequent basis.

Children experiencing night terrors often are unresponsive to comforting…it’s as if they are awake, and yet they are unresponsive and seemingly unaware of the parent’s presence. They may scream, thrash around and sit up with their eyes open or even sleepwalk (or run!)…and then, when it subsides, they fall back asleep…only to have no recollection of the events when they awake the next morning.

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Causes and treatments

Several causes have been identified for sleep terrors inc children, including:

  1. stressful life events
  2. sleep deprivation
  3. fever
  4. certain medications.

Most children resolve their night terrors as they grow older. Medical treatments are rarely considered though it may be useful to have a pediatrician exclude other possible disorders that might cause night terrors. If a child experiences frequent instances (once or more per week), there are several steps parents can take at home to reduce or eliminate their occurence, including:

  1. Ensure a consistent bedtime routine
  2. Eliminate sources of noise or distrubance
  3. Wake your child up before the time they usually experience terrors to interrupt the cycle
  4. Minimize stress and help the child develop coping skills

The good news is that for most children, night terrors are an infrequent occurrence that passes quickly. If only it were less scary for their parents!

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Do you have a story about night terrors? Feel free to share it in the comments.

Additional Resources:

National Institute of Health

Night Terrors Guide

Night Terrors Resource Center

21 thoughts on “When your child’s sleep is scary: night terrors”

  1. My now 12 year old went through this at the age of three. His terror state would frequently last up to an hour or more though. It lasted about three months and then stopped completely. One thing that worked to calm him was to give him a warm bath. It seemed to wake him gently and soothe him. Good luck to any parents going through this, it’s a rough stage. Thankfully, it doesn’t seem to last long.

  2. My nephews have all had trouble with night terrors. Sometimes my sister would sit up with them afterwards to calm them down. It’s true that they never seem to remember in the morning, which is a blessing.

  3. I had heard the term “night terror” before, but didn’t realize that was different than a nightmare. This is good information to know, and I particularly appreciate that you have listed the causes and what can be done to prevent them. This is very helpful information.

  4. Thank you for this article. My 3-year old son just started having sleeping issues where he falls asleep and wakes up every 30-40 minutes. I hear him talking in his sleep, sounding very upset and then wakes up a few minutes later…calms down and goes right back to sleep. And it goes on for maybe 1-2 nights until I guess he is just so tired that he knocks out all night! I also noticed that he started saying that he was scared of the dinosaurs in his room! So, thank you again for the article – it has put me at ease!

  5. This must be a truly frightening occurrence for many parents out there. I had heard about night terrors before but I didn’t know that a child could run down the hallway, and I thought that it had been limited to merely screaming or making loud noises.

    Thank you for this information and the tips you provided, I’m sure it’ll come in handy one day.

  6. My 8 year old son has had night terrors since he was 3. It would occur a couple times a year. It is very scary! We thought our son was possessed! At first like any parents we thought he was having a nightmare but as it happend more often we realized that it was something else. When he was younger he would just wake up screaming but as he got older it became more physical. As a matter of fact he just experienced this night terror 5 minutes ago and that is why I am online. I was looking under sleepwalking and then found out it was called night terror. I had just gone into the bedroom to check on my other kids when I heard my son call out for me, “Mommy! Mommy!”. So I ran back to him to see him sitting up with his eyes wide open. I asked him what’s wrong but he was non-responsive. He would just say things that would not make any sense. He would also often say, “I need to go”. He was running back and forth the room jumping up and down. I was so afraid he would hurt himself. I would try to hold him down by hugging him but he would not allow me to. At times you can see on his face he is so scared! He would cry and scream as if he sees something in front of him. I can only describe it as he is experiencing a nightmare with his eyes open. At one point he came toward me and I thought he was going to hurt me. These night terrors would last about 5 to 10 minutes. We would always to try to wake him up. We first try to calm him down, soothe him and then wake him. After his episode he would quickly fall back to sleep. He would never remember in the morning what happend. It doesn’t matter how many times I’ve gone through this with my son it scares me everytime! I can feel my heart beating just as fast as his! I just hope he outgrows it soon!

    1. Although I’ve never experienced night terrors with my 5 year old, I do know people who deal with it on a regular basis. As a mother, nothing is scarier than watching your child suffer through something and feeling absolutely helpless. I’m sure you’ve done your own research but I thought I would share this link with you: http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/night-terrors/DS01016 The Mayo Clinic is highly respected and has some great information and resources for night terrors.
      Best of luck and know you are not alone!

  7. My eight year old son has just had his second night terror. The first one was last year.On both occasions he has returned home from a friends house that have cats. Could this be a trigger?

  8. We just experienced (2hrs ago) night terrors with our youngest son Devin for the 1st time ever. Devin is 2 & like most nights he’ll wake up & make fuss until he gets he’s baba (milk in a cup) but this time he didn’t ask for baba & although It was offered he would not take it? The patting on his back & humming his favorite melody which normally soothes him right back to sleep

  9. Didn’t seem to be working this time? By then Devin’s behavior was so abnormal dad walked in the picture. Dad was no hero this time. Our son was screaming & crying his lungs out! He was kicking & his little body was just all over the place. He was not responding to anything. He was very frantic…he’s eyes where open & looked very scared. He kept looking over dad’s shoulder like there was something there? He finally fell asleep on dad shoulder. We where speechless & scared! We didn’t know or understand what had just happened. We decided to turn on the t.v to his favorite cartoon show in hopes of helping him erase the picture of whatever bad dream we thought he had just had & knowing that it would’nt be as easy for him to fallback asleep. We where wrong. He awoke when dad lied him down, asked for baba, watched a few minutes of his favorite cartoon (Jack & the neverland pirates) & was out like a light. Dad & I looked at each. We where so disturbed! I can feel a knot in my throat & I can see there was fright i daddy’s eyes. He mentioned nignt terrors & I was all over it. Doing my research & trying to understand what had just happened. Devin did have a night terror. His episode lasted 20 minutes.

  10. My 2.5 yr old son just had his first. He was standing in the middle of his room screaming no,no,no over and over and over, rubbing his eyes and shaking uncontrollably. I was very scared, I swore something must have been after him. He didn’t want my help but still seemed like he did. He was very scared but I was also scared of him. It only lasted 5 min or so. I tried to sing twinkle twinkle but he came toward me with his fingers straight out into my forehead and pushed then all of a sudden he was awake and hugging me and fell back asleep confused. I want to know if he is actually as scared as he seems but I can’t seem to find that info.

  11. My 8 yr old daughter has been have night terrors bout twice a week for this past few yrs she never remembers the next day. She gets up bout and hr into her sleep running around making a weird cry. Sometimes it last an hour or so and sometimes it could last bout 10 mins I don’t no what to do bout it.

  12. My 8 year old daughter had night terrors nearly every night last, some lasting quite a few hours, when its at the worst she has a night terrors and when its finally over and shes back asleep it starts all over again half an hour later, nothing I do helps her, I cant even comfit her.. she runs around the house screaming for me but is unresponsive, in a few of her night terrors she tries to rip the patterns of the blankets or walls or where ever she sees them and screams. one of the scariest times was when I herd her get up and she was trying to climb over the stair rails which it quit a drop to the bottom crying about birds and numerous things I could not make sense of, since then she has been sleeping in my bed so I wake as soon as she gets up.
    From a scared, confused, extremely tired mum.

  13. My 8 year old daughter had night terrors nearly every night, some lasting quite a few hours, when its at the worst she has a night terrors and when its finally over and shes back asleep it starts all over again half an hour later, nothing I do helps her, I cant even comfit her.. she runs around the house screaming for me but is unresponsive, in a few of her night terrors she tries to rip the patterns of the blankets or walls or where ever she sees them and screams. one of the scariest times was when I herd her get up and she was trying to climb over the stair rails which it quit a drop to the bottom crying about birds and numerous things I could not make sense of, since then she has been sleeping in my bed so I wake as soon as she gets up, the next morning she doesn’t remember a thing.
    From a scared, confused, extremely tired mum.

  14. My son wakes up in night terrors. He doesn’t know who I am & he screams for me when I’m looking right at him telling him it’s me. He will pace the room frantically. It’s extremely scary because it doesn’t even look like him when I look him in the eyes.. He never has any recollection of it in the morning. The only thing that I have found that really helps is to pray to God with him & he likes when we ask God to surround our house with his Angels. He usually doesn’t have any night terrors on those nights.

  15. I am so glad to find this message thread. Our 8 year old started doing this and has numerous nights in a row where its either bad guys, snakes or bombs getting him. His eyes are always closed and he can carry on a conversation w us at most times – he’ll ask who we are and then scream get away, you are not my parents you’re bad guys why do you want to bomb me and poison me? WTH I am so beyond stressed and tired. He runs around, tries to get away from us, last night he peed right on the bed and then told me he did it and laughed. It is so hard to understand how someone’s brain can work like that and not remember any thing. I know they say its worse for the parents to witness it, and I can say that is most definitely true! Finally after an hour last night I called the ER nurse but of course she was no help as had never been thru anything like it. She told us it was ok to wake him up. We couldn’t get him to respond. He then spasmed, jerked around and thrashed on the bed and finaly opened his eyes and asked what was going on. I have a meeting w his Pediatrician on Thurs – can’t come quick enough! Bless you all for sharing your stories here – it has helped me feel so not alone.

  16. I was in bed, and my kid starts cussing off the walls so my husband goes in and tries to calm him down and then my kid stared at him and screamed DIE!!! So once I heard that I ran in and my husband was at one end of the room and my kid is inching closer to him and then he stops walking and then he turns his head and looked at me and said leave now so I grabbed him and held him close to me until he fell asleep then I put him in his bed and I went to bed and the next morning we asked him if he remembered anything and he said No.

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