What are night terrors in children?
A night terror (or sleep terror) is when children suddenly get very agitated while in a state of deep sleep. Deep sleep is hard to wake up from.
During a night terror children might look like they’re in a panic. Their hearts might be racing, and they might be breathing fast and sweating. Children might also look like they’re awake – for example, their eyes might be open or they might be crying. Some children might even sit up or get out of bed and run around.
But children are actually asleep during a night terror, so they won’t respond when someone tries to comfort them. They might look confused or dazed, and what they say might not make sense.
Night terrors happen suddenly and often start with a cry or scream. They usually settle down in 10-15 minutes, but they can last longer than this. They don’t usually happen more than once a night. Sometimes they happen regularly for weeks or months, then go away.
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 what not 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 you wake them. If you leave your child asleep, the night terror will be over more quickly and your child won’t remember it happened.
- Wait for your child to stop thrashing around. Guide your child back to bed (if they get out) and tuck them in. Your child will usually settle back to sleep quickly at this stage. If you think your child might get hurt, stay close to guide your child away from hitting or bumping the sides of the cot, bed or other obstacles.
- Try a regular bedtime routine of bath, story and bed. This can help children feel ready for sleep and help them get more sleep. Lack of sleep can cause night terrors in some children.
- If your child is having regular night terrors around the same time each night, try gently waking your child briefly about half an hour before the usual night terror time and resettling them. This works for some children.
- If your child gets up and moves around during their night terrors, make sure your child’s bedroom and any other areas of the house they can get to are safe for your child.
Night terrors are most common in children aged 2-4 years, but can happen in children aged up to 12 years. Most children outgrow night terrors by the time they reach puberty.
When to get help for night terrors
It can help to keep a sleep diary that describes when and where your child sleeps, and how often your child has night terrors. You can share this information with your GP if you’re concerned that your child isn’t getting enough good-quality sleep, or your child’s night terrors are frequent and violent or continue over many months.
What causes night terrors in children?
A common cause of night terrors is not having enough good-quality sleep.
Also, children are more likely to have night terrors if they’re not well. Fever and certain medications can increase the likelihood of night terrors.
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 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, when your child is sleeping lightly and dreaming.
Night terrors are less common than nightmares, but they still affect about 1 in 20 children.
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.