By Raising Children Network
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Boy sleeping with concerned expression credit iStockphoto.com/Viktor Kitaykin

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  • Almost 40% of children aged 2-6 years have night terrors.
  • Young children who have night terrors sometimes sleepwalk when they’re older.
 

One minute children are sleeping like angels, the next they’re screaming and thrashing about – this is a night terror. Night terrors in children can be scary to see, but they don’t hurt or scare your child.

What are night terrors in children?

A night terror is when your child suddenly gets very agitated while in a state of deep sleep.

If your child is having a night terror, she might look like she’s in a panic. Her heart might be racing, and she might be breathing fast and sweating. She might also look like she’s awake – for example, her eyes might be open or she might be crying. She might even sit up or get out of bed and run around.

Your child is actually asleep during a night terror, so he won’t respond when you try to comfort him.  

Night terrors happen suddenly and often start with a cry or scream, but they usually settle down in 10-15 minutes. They don’t usually happen more than once a night. Sometimes they happen every night and then go away for several weeks.

Night terrors might seem scary to you, but they don’t hurt your child. Children don’t remember them in the morning and aren’t aware of having had a bad dream or a fright.

What to do if your child has night terrors

Here’s what to do – and not do – if your child has night terrors:

  • Avoid waking your child during a night terror. A child having a night terror will only be confused and disorientated if you wake her. If you leave her asleep, the night terror will be over more quickly and your child won’t remember it ever happened.
  • Wait for your child to stop thrashing around. Guide your child back to bed (if he got out) and tuck him in. He’ll usually settle back to sleep quickly at this stage. If you think your child might get hurt, stay close to guide him away from hitting or bumping the sides of the cot, bed or other obstacles.
  • Try not to worry about night terrors. They don’t mean there’s anything wrong with your child.
  • Lack of sleep can cause night terrors in some children. If you think your child isn’t getting enough sleep, a regular bedtime routine of bath, story and bed might help your child feel ready for sleep.
Children usually experience night terrors between the ages of 18 months and 6 years. Children grow out of night terrors as they develop more mature forms of deep sleep.

When to get help for night terrors

If you’re still concerned, or the night terrors seem prolonged or violent, seek professional advice.

If your child is having night terrors along with other sleeping difficulties – or your child also has breathing problems like snoring – talk with your GP about an ear, nose and throat assessment.

What causes night terrors in children?

Children are more likely to have night terrors if they’re not well. Another very common cause is not having enough sleep.

Night terrors can run in families. Your child is more likely to have night terrors if someone else in the family has had them.

Night terrors are part of the normal development of sleep in children. They’ll usually go away by themselves as your child gets older.

Night terrors and nightmares

Night terrors are different from nightmares.

Children are usually awake and distressed after a nightmare, but they sleep through night terrors and don’t remember them when they wake up.

Night terrors happen during the first few hours of sleep, when your child is sleeping very deeply. Nightmares tend to happen in the second half of the night, during phases of REM or dream sleep. 

Night terrors are less common than nightmares.

You handle night terrors differently from nightmares. This is because a child who’s had a nightmare might wake up, remember the nightmare and feel upset, but children with night terrors won’t. For more information, read our article on nightmares.
 
 
 
  • Last updated or reviewed 19-07-2016