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Night Terrors are Different than Nightmares

Scared child holding a doll

​​​This information is included in our Guide to Sleep Issues. Click here to see the rest of the guide.

A few hours after your child has gone to sleep for the night, you hear a shrill scream coming from her room, followed by "Mommy, Mommy." You race to your child's room and notice her sitting up in bed, crying uncontrollably. As you come closer to console her, she pushes you away and continues to call out for her mommy, not recognizing that you are right by her side. This scary synopsis is known as a night terror.

Children with night terrors scream or cry out and are inconsolable, even though they may be calling out for the very person who is trying to help. The reason is that the child is still asleep, even though he may be wide-eyed and possibly out of bed, flailing his arms and body. As quickly as the terror begins, in a few minutes, it is over and the child goes back to sleep. And, unlike a nightmare, the child does not remember the night terror the next morning.

Night terrors are most common in children between the ages of 3-5 years because this is the age when the majority of children make the transition from one nap a day to no naps at all. The terrors are a result of the child not being able to go through the sleep cycle properly. Children who become overly tired will fall into a deep sleep very quickly and when it's time for the sleep cycle to change, part of the child's brain wants to remain in this deep sleep-forcing a battle in the sleep cycle.  

How to treat terrors

You may actually prolong the terror episode by cuddling your child. During a terror, your child is feeling trapped or chased and holding a child will reinforce these feelings, making the night terror more traumatic for the child. It is best to make sure the bedroom or area the child sleeps is safe, should he start sleepwalking. Talk slowly in a soft, comforting voice, play lullaby music or read from a favorite book to help bring your child back to a calm state. Once the terror is over, your child will most likely return to sleep.

Because night time terrors typically occur at the same time every night, parents can be proactive by waking up their child about 30 minutes before the terror is likely to occur. Stay up with your child for about 5 minutes, reading a book, talking or singing a song. This will break the sleep cycle.

How to prevent terrors

Prevention involves understanding your child's daily tolerance level and not over-loading your child with busy schedules. Pay attention to sleep patterns and keep a routine sleep schedule. If your child has a particularly busy day, parents may think about adding a nap during the day or having the child go to bed a little early the night before. Try taking your child to the bathroom before bed to relive any urges in the middle of the night. And create a calming and comforting bedtime routine with music, stuffed animals or a favorite blanket.

Your child will not remember the night terror the next morning.  Do not discuss the terror with your child and talk to siblings about not bringing up the episode.