Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Night Terrors

by Malina

The first time my son had a night terror is etched into my memory. It was terrifying to me. My husband and I went in to check on the kids before going to bed ourselves. Our son's eyes were wide open, he was shaking slightly, covered in sweat and tightly gripping the side of his bed. We asked him what was wrong and he didn't respond. We asked if he wanted some water or if he was having a nightmare. He didn't respond. We did not know what was happening. Was he having a seizure? I almost called 911 I was so worried about him.

I remember realizing that he wasn't really awake though he appeared to be. My husband picked him up and held him and we sat on the couch until he suddenly sat up and looked at us in confusion, perhaps 5 minutes later. We asked him if he'd been having a nightmare and he had no recollection of any of the events that had just happened. He just wanted to go back to sleep. So we put him in his bed.

Instead of going to sleep myself, I started searching the internet to find out what had just happened. It turned out he had had a classic night terror episode. Knowing that he would probably sleep just fine the rest of the night I was able to go to bed myself. Since then he has had many night terrors, but now we know how to handle them. We also believe we have reduced them by keeping a standard bedtime and keeping him from being overtired or overstimulated, or eating too much rich food before bed.


  • Night terrors happen to about 15% of children most commonly between ages two and six. They can occur at any age, from infant to adult. 
  • Night terrors occur in stage 4 of sleep, (a non REM stage) usually within an hour of the child going to sleep. This is the same stage during which sleep walking or bedwetting occur. 
  • During a night terror, the child is still asleep even though they may appear to be completely awake. When they do wake up, they usually have no recollection of the event.
  • Night terrors symptoms include screaming, sweating, confusion, rapid heart rate, and an inability to recall what has happened.
  • The night terror episodes usually last between 5 and 30 minutes. Afterward the child falls back asleep easily.
  • Night terrors usually run in families, like other sleep disorders. They are not dangerous (unless you hurt yourself sleep walking during them.) They also do not signify psychological problems.
  • Yelling at a child to try and wake them up does not help. Hug them or hold them and be reassuring. Keep them safe.
  • Children usually grow out of night terrors, though if they occur frequently, there are medications to help reduce them.
I hope that this post raises awareness of this sleep disorder so that if your child experiences them, it will not be quite as terrifying to you as it was for me the first time. For more information on night terrors, visit this link or this link.

Have you experienced or dealt with night terrors personally or as a parent? What has helped best to comfort them? What has helped reduce them? 

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