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's 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 many things you may see when your child has a night terror. Your child may:

  • Have a look of fear or panic

  • Be sleeping, and suddenly sit up in bed with their eyes wide open

  • Scream or cry out

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

  • Seem confused, won’t recognize you, and won't be aware of what's happening

A night terror often lasts only a few minutes to a half an hour. Then the child will 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.

  • Don't have your child do any 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 wakes up 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 safety steps so that your child doesn't hurt themselves if agitated. Eventually, the reaction stops and your child quickly falls back to sleep. The next day your child likely won't recall what happened the night before.

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

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

Follow-up care

Follow up with your child's healthcare provider, or as advised.

Call 911

Call 911 if any of these occur:

  • Trouble breathing

  • Seizure

When to get medical advice

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

  • 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 doesn't stop after 45 minutes

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