By Raising Children Network
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Boy sleeping with concerned expression credit Kitaykin

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Almost 40% of children aged 2-6 years experience night terrors, according to a 2009 study.
One minute children are sleeping like angels, the next they’re screaming and thrashing about – this is a night terror. Night terrors can be scary for you, but they don’t hurt or scare your child.

Night terrors: the basics

A night terror is when your child suddenly becomes very agitated while in a state of deep sleep. A night terror can last from a few minutes up to 40 minutes.

Children having night terrors might sit or stand up, shake, move around, and cry or scream loudly. They might look like they’re in extreme panic. A child having a night terror is inconsolable and won’t respond to soothing or comforting.

During a night terror, your child’s eyes might be open. Children having night terrors might be moving and thrashing around, but they’re actually still in a state of deep sleep.

Night terrors can run in families, so there might be a genetic component to whether children will experience them.

Night terrors are natural events associated with the normal development of sleep in children.

Night terrors seem scary to you, but they don’t harm 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

  • Avoid waking your child during a night terror. A child having a night terror will only be confused and disorientated if woken, and might take longer to settle.
  • Wait for your child to stop thrashing around. Guide your child back to bed (if she got out) and tuck her in. Children will usually settle back to sleep quickly at this stage. If you think your child might get hurt, stay close to guide her away from hitting or bumping the sides of the cot, bed or other obstacles.
  • You don’t need to be concerned about night terrors. They don’t mean there’s anything wrong with your child.
Children usually experience night terrors between the ages of 18 months and six years. Children grow out of night terrors as they develop more mature forms of deep sleep.

Night terrors and nightmares

Night terrors are different from nightmares. 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 sleep.

Night terrors are less common than nightmares.

Managing nightmares is quite different from managing night terrors. 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.

When to get help

If you’re still concerned, or the night terrors seem prolonged or violent, seek professional advice. If night terrors are occurring along with other sleeping difficulties – or your child also has breathing problems, such as snoring – talk with your doctor about an ear, nose and throat assessment.

  • Last updated or reviewed 12-07-2013