Why Some Kids Experience Night Terrors

Get the 411 on the difference between night terrors and nightmares, find out why some kids experience night terrors and how to prevent your kids from having them.

Monster child in a pink thought bubble surrounded by ghosts
Art by Brent Mosser

Jessica Erpelo recalls sleepless nights all too well when her son, Connor, was a baby. But not for the traditional reasons you may think. From the time Connor was two months old, he suffered from night terrors — episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep.

“There was no rhyme or reason for them,” she says. “He used to get them monthly as a baby but now that he’s 3, it happens every few months.”

While Erpelo tried everything from holding and feeding him, she eventually found the best solution was comfort him in a dim room and wait for him to stop.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, night terrors occur in about 2 percent of children ages 1 to 4. But as a parent, how do you know if your child is having a night terror, and can they be prevented? 

Night terrors vs. nightmares

Pediatric Sleep Consultant Maggie Moore, the owner of the digitally based Moore Sleep, says night terrors present themselves much differently than nightmares. 

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While nightmares are typically defined as a scary dream that happens when you child is asleep, causing them to wake up, night terrors are often associated with inconsolable crying and panic, making it difficult for parents to wake the child.

“Night terrors typically occur one to three hours after your child goes to bed,” Moore says. “While the episodes don’t last long, they can be terrifying for parents.”

Common behaviors during night terrors as defined by the AAP may last up to 45 minutes and can include:

  • Uncontrollable crying
  • Sweating, shaking and fast breathing
  • Terrified, confused and glassy-eyed look
  • Thrashing, screaming and kicking
  • Not recognizing you or realizing your presence
  • Pushing you away

How to comfort children during an episode

According to Dr. Harvey Karp, nationally renowned pediatrician, child development specialist and author of The Happiest Baby series, parents should understand that while a night terror is happening, there’s not much they can do to help.

“During an episode, you can just hold your child (if she will let you) and sing a familiar song, or repeat reassuring words over and over, like, ‘Mommy’s here’ and ‘You’re safe,'” he says.

Moore cautions parents on “interfering too much,” which may cause more harm than good.

“Trying to wake your child when they are in such a deep period of sleep can cause more agitation and confusion,” she says. “It also poses the risk of throwing off the next sleep cycle.”

Preventing night terrors

Fortunately, Karp recommends these tricks to keep these unsettling “sleep strange-ities” at bay:

  • Stick to a regular nap and nighttime schedule
  • Use a predictable, calming bedtime routine every night. 
  • To get your child in a relaxed state of mind, an hour before bed, dim the lights and turn on the white noise. 
  • In that golden hour before bedtime, avoid rough-housing, screens and stimulants (chocolate, caffeinated drinks, antihistamines, or decongestants). 
  • Try bedtime sweet talk as part of your routine to help relax your child’s mind: As you tuck in your tot, talk about all the wonderful things that happened that day.

When to call the doctor

Dr. Matthew Hornik, pediatrician and spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, says while kids generally grow out of night terrors, he encourages parents to talk to their child’s doctor if they have concerns about their child’s quality of sleep or sleep habits.

“If children continue to have night terrors multiple times in a week, or their child is consistently tired during the day, then parents should discuss with this their pediatrician, as there could be other problems going on such as sleep apnea,” he says.

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