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What Are Night Terrors?

Helping Your Toddler With Night Terrors

If your toddler has ever had a nightmare, then you know how scary it can be for him. But if, like Maggie C.'s 17-month-old son, he's "thrashing around" with "no regard for what's around him," then you're dealing with something that can be quite scary for you: night terrors

Keep reading.

Are Night Terrors Different From Nightmares?

A sleep disruption that leaves your child inconsolable — and perhaps even unresponsive for a time — a night terror is different from a bad dream. According to KidsHealth, common signs of a night terror are:

  • Your child wakes up screaming two to three hours after going to sleep
  • Breathing and heartbeat are rapid, and your child might be sweating profusely
  • Your child may thrash uncontrollably in bed

While almost everyone has the occasional nightmare, night terrors are fairly rare, occurring in only 3 to 6 percent of children, and usually over a brief period of time. They're caused by the overarousal of the central nervous system (CNS), perhaps primarily because it is still maturing. Translation: your child took in a lot of new or intense experiences during the day and is struggling to make sense of them while she sleeps.

There is anecdotal evidence that night terrors might also have a genetic component. Circle of Moms members Laura R. and Alysa H., both of whom have daughters who get night terrors, had them as kids themselves. Laura refers to her own as "panic attacks in my sleep," and Alysa says she had them so bad as a child that it took her mother years before she understood that she had to stand back and let it happen.

Since night terrors happen during the deep, non-REM phase of sleep, your child will appear awake but likely be unresponsive, even to comfort. That's why parents often feel at a loss for how to help, and may even be terrified themselves.

How You Can Help

The most important thing is to stay as calm as possible and make sure your child doesn't get injured. Night terrors usually last between 10 and 30 minutes, so stay with your child until he or she has fully come out of the state and is communicative again. Then offer comfort as you would after a simple nightmare.

Many children have night terrors when they are overtired. Try to stick to a bedtime routine that your child enjoys. This could possibly prevent recurrences, or at least reduce the duration of an episode.

Circle of Moms member Marne G. says that change or trauma triggers her daughter's night terrors and that it didn't help to hold her. She says, in fact, that holding your baby can make the thrashing worse. Wait it out, and the terror will eventually subside on its own.

The good news is that your baby won't remember the experience. Nightmares can often be recalled, but night terrors cannot. And if your child gets them, take heart: kids usually grow out of them by the time they are 5 or 6 years old.

Image Source: Shutterstock
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JenniferChesser JenniferChesser 4 years
Just saw this article and wanted to read it and see how it compares to what my son goes through. He is 12 now and began having them at age 4 or 5. They would occur about 1-1 1/2 hours after he went to bed. Everything they mentioned is true, the best thing is to let it run it's course because there is no consoling a night terror. My son's would last at least 30 minutes and sometimes up to 45 minutes. He has had a few that would last almost an hour. Most times he would run back and forth in the house, he would be crying and screaming for me, heart racing, sweating, eyes darting...it is lime he's in "fight or flight" mode. He used to have 1 or 2 a week, and sometimes 2 per night. Now he only has about 5-6 per year, they don't last as long as they did when he was younger and they do coincide with when he is stressed or overtired. Thankfully he never remembers them. He also walks and talks in his sleep all the time, which I did as a child too.
ElizabethThomas78842 ElizabethThomas78842 4 years
Oh my gosh! Emily had this for a couple of years. Her doctor told me what it was. Now she is in 1st grade now and may just whimper a couple of times and go back to sleep. They were really scary and I felt helpless about what to do at the time. I would put on the light and try to rub her back until she calmed down. I never had night terrors, but I did walk in my sleep all the time.
JessiHall JessiHall 4 years
My 3 year old has had night terrors randomly since she was only a few weeks old. I was told that they're very rare for children that young, and took her to several specialists for it. Though she doesn't thrash around. Her night terrors used to last for an hour or more when she was younger, but as she's gotten older, she's been responding somewhat to me holding her & gently shushing in her ear. Now, when she has them, they only last between 10-20 minutes. She rarely ever wakes up after one, and I usually end up holding her and rocking her until her lip stops quivering. It's definitely horrifying being unable to comfort them during a night terror, but I'm just thankful they don't remember them. Its traumatizing for us, but it only seems traumatizing for them.
ShantaePeace ShantaePeace 5 years
i thought i was alone on this my son hasn`t had a ight terroe in a few months but i finally relized what truama & stress he & was under to cause them.
KellySteger KellySteger 5 years
I had night terrors as a child. They were very scary for everyone. I would come to and not have any idea why everyone was standing around me. My Momma ended up taking me to the doctor who ended up referring me to a child therapist. This was because I was having them every day. My Mom and Dad were having (and still are) big issues in their marriage. The therapist told my mom that these issues were the cause of me having night terrors. They were very scary. I have two children. My daughter has had them a couple of times. They are scary. I now know what my Mom went through. It's been a year since she has had one. Hopefully she won't have anymore.
AprilHyakSoedirman AprilHyakSoedirman 5 years
My son does it though not with the intensity mentioned in the article. At times, he would reach out for me and place his hand into my dress sleeve or my body for comfort.
AlisaHeath AlisaHeath 5 years
i hope everyone reads this!! (sorry something is wrong with my caps) my children have sleeping disorders so my husband, their doctor and i do a lot of research. well our doctor found this and it really works. what you do is you put your child to bed after they have been asleep for only 30 mintues you wake them up, you dont need to keep them awake but do something like ask them to take a drink of water or ask them to give you a huge and kiss or just to tell you that they love you! then let them go right back to sleep. do it everynight for at least a month longer if needed. it will not hurt your child. but what happens is a night terror is when your child goes too deep into rem, by wakeing them it stops them from going too far into that rem sleep just by waking them up! we did it and the first night it worked! i have told everyone i know and it has worked for everyone who has tryed it! please try it and tell everyone you know. its scary and something that does not have to happen and if this helps its worth it! good luck everyone!!
NajmaFahad NajmaFahad 5 years
thanks alot fr the article..my 20 month old starts screaming in the middle of night , it happens after 3 to 4 days, have no idea what triggers it, but atleast now i know not to panic!
ElizabethGreenhill24729 ElizabethGreenhill24729 5 years
So far 2 out of my 3 kids have had night terrors, the youngest is almost the age the others were when they started having them so I'm keeping a close ear on him. My daughters both started when they were just about 2yrs, and my oldest now 7 quit having them when she was 6. My 4 year old still has them regularly, though. I've noticed that she may go for as long as 2 months without having an episode, but then if she has one she will have them every night for almost 2 weeks, then they slowly start tapering off again. My girls share a room, so to Lisa and others who have a room-sharing issue: whenever one of them is having an episode we move them onto the couch for the rest of the night. That allows everyone to get back to sleep more quickly. As a bonus sometimes the moving her to the living room wakes her up enough that she'll ask for a drink of water and go back to sleep, although sometimes she's still in the throes of it and we just have to wait it out. As for the bunk beds, that sounds scary! I would definitely nix sleeping on the top bunk until he outgrows the terrors. I'm really glad this was posted, night terrors aren't talked about very much and a lot of parents are dealing with this and not even knowing what it is.
DawnBrune DawnBrune 5 years
I had night terrors as a child and fear my 2 year old will have them too. The solution my doctor told my parents worked well...they eased me into a bathtub of water and I remember many a night waking up in the tub. My parents told me that during my terrors, I perceived them as robbers with black masks on and I would not allow them to come near me. I always thought this was a bad dream, but apparently it was a night terror. My parents would try to talk to me, but all I heard was threatening shouts. Somehow they would pick me up and get me in the tub, sometimes with my pjs on if I was thrashing too much. Then I'd go right back to be as if nothing happened. Hope that works for some of you that tried everything else.
MichelleFord81074 MichelleFord81074 5 years
Lisa why dont you move your two year old into your room while he is asleep? or even after he is woken up and just let him in your bed?
CrystalHardy CrystalHardy 5 years
My son is 5 almost 6 and he is still having them... Covers his ears screaming MOMMY....... He gets a glaze over his eyes andas soon as he is aware the glaze is gone.. Its soo scary to sit there and watch.. Hopefully it will soon pass!!
DorisGigliPerry DorisGigliPerry 5 years
I am a mom of 3 and luckily only one of my kids have had night terrors. My son started having night terrors shortly after he turned 1 and did not end until he was around 8. As he got older they got worse. He was a colicky baby and very hyper as a toddler and young child. Most of the time he stayed in bed but there were many times he was up and moving in his sleep (walking and running) and trying to get out the front door. Not only did he not realize I was there, he was unconsolable and did not remember any of it in the morning. They always happened within 2 hrs of going to sleep. Very scary. I feel for all you moms out there that have to deal with this. I promise it will get better. :)
SarahVaughan82638 SarahVaughan82638 5 years
This article didn't explain why you shouldn't wake a child from their night terror, or perhaps I missed it? My husband still gets night terrors combined with sleep apnea, and I do try to rouse him out of it or else he will punch holes in the wall, which he has.
MelissaMacKinnon MelissaMacKinnon 5 years
My 22 month old daughter has night terros. they are honestly some of the scariest things I have ever seen.
AngelJadoobirsingh AngelJadoobirsingh 5 years
i'm not sure whether dani has night terrors or nightmares but once i put her into a toddler bed i just started locking up the house at night to keep her out of things if she wakes up and i don't hear her. i keep finding her in my bed in the mornings tho. and she crawls into bed with me crying but goes promptly back to sleep.
ClairePontague ClairePontague 5 years
I'm fairly certain that there has not been enough research done on night terrors to be able to pinpoint a cause. You may need to change your wording up there. Personally I believe that they are caused by stress just like nightmares are. Good advice though! At the end, they won't even remember the night terror when they wake up, even adults don't!
raquelsanantonio raquelsanantonio 5 years
it happened to my daughter twice first one was fine as my husband was with me as it is scary. second time was scarier as i was on my own and it was 3am she was just crying and thrashing and just looking blankly at me and doesn't want to be touched. All i did was turn all the lights on in the bedroom, played her bedtime music and after a couple of minutes she cuddled back to me and went back to sleep....
LisaNicholls60173 LisaNicholls60173 5 years
One of my daughters did this when she was around 2 1/2 - 3 years old for a while. Because she shares a room with her younger sister, we would take her downstairs and just sit on the floor and let her ride it out and then she'd slump down and go right to sleep for the rest of the night. Sometimes the full thrashing and screaming lasted for 30 - 45 minutes. It was very frustrating because it would wake us from a dead sleep and we were so tired. She is close to 4 years old now and rarely has them anymore. We have found that if we immediately bring her from her bed to ours when she starts to scream at night, she is less likely to go into the full terror.
jennifermartin90174 jennifermartin90174 5 years
I agree. My two and a half year old daughter has been having them since she was about a year old. As she has gotten older though, they have become less frequent, often occurring in clumps every few months.
AlfredaWellsMorrissey AlfredaWellsMorrissey 5 years
My daughter seems to have temper tantrums at night. They can last up to 15 minutes, sometimes she wakes up after and needs a snuggle and sometimes she just goes back to sleep. She doesn't really seem scared, but angry at not getting her own way. One night I walked in just as she was saying, "I do it myself my clips!" She always wants to do her car seat up herself but she is just not strong enough to do the bottom clips and she is very slow so if we are in a hurry, I will take over and she gets angry. This is exactly what she says. I wonder if she is just a vivid dreamer, or if this is a form of night terror. It doesn't seem to harm her, although she appears to be more tired the next day as if she didn't get a good night sleep. Usually I wait until she is finished and then if she wakes up crying, I will rock her for a bit. It does seem to happen more often if she misses her bed time or nap. It was frustrating at first because she was waking me up, but would not respond to me when I asked her what was wrong. Eventually I realized she was actually still asleep.
rachaellaurie rachaellaurie 5 years
thank you, i thought madison was having them and she was. hasnt had one in a good few months so hopefully she wont get them, was heart breaking the 1st one as didnt no what was happening and was panicing because she would not wake up :(
StephanieRoberts36290 StephanieRoberts36290 5 years
my daughter has been having these since around age 1, at first i thought it was teething, as she was thrashing around in her cot as if she was in pain, but when i tried to pick her up for comfort she would go ridgid in my arms and then try and get away from me. for my daughter they often dont occur 2-3 hours after going to bed, its usually the early hours of the morning. i dont know what sets her off, but she seems to have not had any for a few months now, although she is in a bed now and some nights will come into my bedroom, in a state of half asleep, but looking frightened, so i wonder if shes now having 'normal' nightmares and/or sleepwalking. Both of which i was terrible for as a kid.
AllanaMitchell AllanaMitchell 5 years
When I was about 18 months - 5 years, mum said I would get night terrors, but once she moved me to my own room (before I shared with my brother) they stoped, except for a few more after a super exciting day. My daughter. (Jayd) gets them all the time, sometimes she's screaming and swating the air, or she's singing and laighing (which is actually cute). I already knew not to try to wake them, but its so hard to watch. I have to wonder, does anyone elses kids sing and laugh in their sleep too? She has a very positive additude about everything, I wonder if thay has something to do with it?.
AshleyBauman AshleyBauman 5 years
My toddler has them about once a week. We've found that the cooler we can keep her the better. Making sure that her feet are bare seems to help minimize them. We also found that keeping her ceiling fan on every night and playing lullaby music on repeat all night helped to keep the terrors at bay. We read somewhere that if while you were sleeping your mind was focusing on music, it couldn't focus on the night terror. I don't know, but after we started having the music on all night, she went from having them every night to just once ever week or two.
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