Night terrors episodes are as terrifying for parents as they are for the children suffering from them. Distinct from nightmares, night terrors generally occur about 90 minutes to 2 hours after your child has fallen asleep. During a night terror episode, your child might bolt upright or begin thrashing in bed, kicking, screaming, and shrieking in terror for no apparent reason. They may appear awake but they are not and won’t respond to your attempts to calm them down or figure out what’s wrong. Symptoms of night terrors include sweating, rapid heart rate, and rapid breathing.
Unfortunately, night terrors are poorly understood, so there isn’t really a “treatment” for them. Some children experience night terror episodes for years, leaving their parents frustrated and concerned and possibly feeling helpless. While there is no treatment, there are steps you can take to help your family deal with episodes of night terrors:
- Ensure that your child’s bedroom is safe. For example, children with night terrors tend to thrash, so bedside tables and chairs should be moved. It’s also not a good idea to let a child experiencing night terrors sleep on an upper bunk.
- As much as possible, stick to consistent bedtime routines. Overtiredness can be a factor in night terrors, so plan for a soothing bath, an uplifting story, perhaps a favorite stuffed animal, some cuddle time, and no TV, video games, stimulation, or heavy snacks just before tucking your child in.
- While your child will not be aware of you during a night terror, you should still do what you can to soothe your child, make sure your child does not self-injure through a fall or thrashing against a wall or object, and perhaps rock your child until the episode is over.
- Thankfully, children with night terrors have no recollection of what they were afraid of or what the terror was about (unlike nightmares). When the episode is over (they can last from a few minutes to half an hour), reassure your child and tuck them back in bed.
If your child suffers from regular night terrors at a consistent schedule, some experts recommend waking the child up just before the usual time the episode occurs. The idea is to disrupt the pattern. However, if your child not only has numerous night terrors weekly, but also has daytime fearfulness, a history of self-injury during night terrors, or suffers from extreme tiredness due to multiple episodes, it is time to consult your pediatrician. Thankfully, as upsetting as night terrors can be, most children will simply outgrow them.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, December 2018
- Ensure your child’s bedroom is a safe place for night terrors to occur by moving objects out of reach.
- Stick to a consistent bedtime routine.
- Avoid TV, video games and heavy snacks before bed.
- Most children will outgrow episodes of night terrors.