Night Terrors

Night terrors usually affect children ages 4 to12. These are not the same as nightmares. A night terror usually awakens a child within a couple hours after falling asleep. They occur during deeper stages of (non-REM) sleep, between dream cycles. It is not a sign of medical illness or psychological problems. The cause is uncertain, but it may be more likely after a day of over-exertion, stress, and exhaustion.

There are a number of things you can see when your child has a night terror: He or she may:

  • Have a look of fear or panic

  • Be sleeping, and suddenly sits up in bed with his or her eyes wide open

  • Scream or cry out

  • Breathe fast, have a fast heart rate, and be gasping, moaning, mumbling, or thrashing

  • Seem confused and won’t recognize you and will not aware of what is happening

A night terror usually lasts only a few minutes to a half an hour, and then they normally go back to sleep.

Home care

  • Have the same bedtime and wake-up time for your child (on both school and non-school days).

  • Have a set bedtime routine.

  • Avoid high-energy activities during the hour before bedtime.

  • Make the hour before bedtime a quiet time.

  • Don't have a TV in your child's bedroom.

  • Keep your child's room dark and quiet.

  • Use a small night light if your child is afraid of the dark.

  • When your child awakens with a night terror, stay close and try to comfort your child until it passes.

  • Don't try to wake up your child.

Care during an episode

During a night terror, there is usually nothing you can do to calm your child. Take precautions so that your child does not hurt him- or herself if agitated. Eventually, the reaction stops and your child quickly falls back to sleep. The next day your child probably won't remember what happened the night before.

Waking your child up may make him or her scared and agitated. This is especially true if you were upset, shaking them, yelling or crying. It is much better to just make sure your child is safe. After your child wakes, provide comfort and help him or her go back to sleep.

Night terrors can recur, but most children outgrow them, as they get older. This is not a disease, and no medical treatment is needed.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider, or as advised.

Call 911

Call 911 if any of the following occur:

  • Trouble breathing

  • Seizure

When to seek medical advice

 Call your child's healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:  

  • Fever (see Fever and children, below)

  • Abnormal behavior or confusion that occurs during daytime, waking hours

  • Stiff neck

  • Headache

  • Night terrors occur more than 1 or 2 times per month

  • A night terror episode does not stop after 45 minutes

Fever and children

Always use a digital thermometer to check your child’s temperature. Never use a mercury thermometer.

For infants and toddlers, be sure to use a rectal thermometer correctly. A rectal thermometer may accidentally poke a hole in (perforate) the rectum. It may also pass on germs from the stool. Always follow the product maker’s directions for proper use. If you don’t feel comfortable taking a rectal temperature, use another method. When you talk to your child’s healthcare provider, tell him or her which method you used to take your child’s temperature.

Here are guidelines for fever temperature. Ear temperatures aren’t accurate before 6 months of age. Don’t take an oral temperature until your child is at least 4 years old.

Child age 3 to 36 months:

  • Rectal, forehead (temporal artery), or ear temperature of 102°F (38.9°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Armpit temperature of 101°F (38.3°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

Child of any age:

  • Repeated temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher, or as directed by the provider

  • Fever that lasts more than 24 hours in a child under 2 years old. Or a fever that lasts for 3 days in a child 2 years or older.

© 2000-2021 The StayWell Company, LLC. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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