Does Your Kid Get Night Terrors? Here's How to Scare Them Off For Good

If you've found yourself waking up in the middle of the night to your little one kicking, screaming, or crying — all while they're still asleep — don't brush it off as simply another nightmare. Your child may be experiencing bad dreams on steroids, otherwise known as night terrors. So what exactly are they? According to the Mayo Clinic, "Sleep terrors are episodes of screaming, intense fear, and flailing while still asleep." They're also often accompanied by sleepwalking.

While children typically outgrow night terrors, they can be very scary for parents and lead to some seriously sleepless nights. Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist at Columbia University and the founder of Aha! Parenting, says that night terrors can take place at any age, but she sees them the most in young kids. And while sleep terrors are fairly common — 1.5 million children get them each year — there are some ways to keep them from happening as frequently.

Nightmare vs. Night Terror
StockSnap User Laura Lee Moreau

Nightmare vs. Night Terror

The first step in helping your little one move past their night terrors is recognizing what they are in the first place. This can be tricky because many parents assume their kid is simply having a nightmare at first. But don't be fooled — sleep terrors are very, very different from nightmares, even though they may not seem so at first.

"Night terrors are different from nightmares because children can be awakened from a nightmare, talk about it, and remember it; however, a child with a sleep or night terror can't be awakened from it, nor can they talk about it, and usually the child does not remember it the next morning," says website Sleep Disorder Help.

The one thing you should never do? Wake your little one up in the middle of a night terror, since they'll most likely be confused and it'll be difficult to calm them down.

Signs of Night Terrors
Flickr User Alon Banks

Signs of Night Terrors

When kids first start experiencing sleep terrors, it can be just as scary for the parents as it is for kids, largely due to the symptoms.

Though sleep terrors are pretty unpredictable when it comes to figuring out which nights they're going to occur, scientists do know one thing — they usually take place when a child's in Stage 4 of sleep, which is a deep sleep, or when they are transitioning between Stage 4 sleep and REM sleep, which accounts for those times when a bomb could go off and they still wouldn't wake up.

And when it comes to duration, sleep terrors typically last anywhere from a few minutes up to 30 minutes and can occur nightly or less frequently.

Not exactly sure what a night terror looks like IRL? These symptoms are a dead giveaway:

  • yelling or screaming during sleep
  • bolting straight upright in bed
  • appearing agitated
  • moving around erratically or violently
  • sleepwalking
  • feeling confused after being awoken
  • being very hard to console after waking up
What Causes Night Terrors?
Flickr User Randen Pederson

What Causes Night Terrors?

Although there is no scientific evidence that says night terrors are caused by one specific thing, experts agree that a mix of biological and environmental factors causes them.

"There are indications that stress and over-tiredness can trigger night terrors in people who are prone to them, and sleep apnea can certainly make it hard for children to get enough rest," explains Markham.

Children with anxiety issues are also at a higher risk for having sleep terrors along with kids who tend to overheat when they're sleeping (so avoid footy pajamas at all costs!).

Markham explains that kids who are sick or have allergies may be at a higher risk of experiencing night terrors.

"[Being sick] makes it harder to breathe, which may trigger night terrors," explains Markham. "Ask your doctor about using Benadryl until he's back to normal. Some physicians say that removing the tonsils and adenoids can immediately cure night terrors in cases where they were regularly swollen and the child was having a hard time breathing at night."

And interestingly enough, moving dinner time a touch earlier may nip your kid's sleeping problem right in the bud, since children who ate dinner later in the night were more prone to having their sleep disrupted.

How Can Sleep Terrors Be Prevented?
Flickr User Maeka Alexis

How Can Sleep Terrors Be Prevented?

While there's no magic over-the-counter trick to get kids to stop having night terrors, there are some things you can do to severely reduce their frequency — and many of them boil down to making small changes in their routines.

Start by adopting a comforting bedtime ritual.

"[Make time for a] bath, snuggling, and reading and follow it each night, making sure that your child has an hour of 'wind-down' that is soothing," says Markham. "There shouldn't be any music, TV, loudness, wildness, or anything particularly arousing, and no food, since digestion seems to be the source of night terrors for some people."

Make sure they're not getting woken up.

"There's some evidence that night terrors result from being awakened during Stage 4 sleep, if there is already a predisposition," explains Markham. "If traffic or TV or telephone noises intrude on their sleep, they could be awakening them. You might want to invest in a white noise machine as a precaution."

If you're still not having any luck, Markham suggests resetting your kid's arousal system. And be warned: this will take a little bit more diligence.

"Gently wake your child 15 minutes before the night terrors usually occur. If you see a pattern, and the night terrors are frequent, it might be worth it. If you do this for three to five days, it will hopefully interrupt the arousal cycle and prevent the night terrors from recurring."