What are night terrors in children?

A night terror (or sleep terror) is when your child suddenly gets very agitated while in a state of deep sleep. Deep sleep is hard to wake up from.

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. 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 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 a regular bedtime routine of bath, story and bed. This might help your child feel ready for sleep and help her 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 waking him about half an hour before the usual night terror time and resettling him. This works for some children.
  • Try not to worry about night terrors. They don’t mean there’s something wrong with your child.
Night terrors are normal in children aged 2-12 years, and they’re most common between the ages of 2 and 4 years. Most children outgrow night terrors by the time they reach puberty.

When to get help for night terrors

If your child is having night terrors along with breathing problems like snoring, talk with your GP about an ear, nose and throat assessment.

It can help to keep a sleep diary that describes when and where your child sleeps, and how often she 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.

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.