What are Night Terrors and how can you Help Them?

I can still vividly remember the first time my firstborn experienced a night terror. He had just turned two years old and by that age he slept from 8pm to 6am in his toddler bed without any need for us. One summer night, around 11pm he let out the shrillest most blood curdling scream I have ever heard. I raced into his room and found him standing on his bed screaming, sweating and staring at the wall, his eyes were wide open but he was not focussing on anything. It was reminiscent of a scene from a horror movie. It was like he was possessed.

I tried desperately to calm him, but his body was rigid in my arms, when I tried to hug him he hit me away. Nothing I did made a difference. I tried talking to him, I tried to give him a drink, I checked his temperature and tried to give him medicine. Eventually, after ten minutes or so of screaming, staring with a fixed glazed look and thrashing around we managed to get him to lay down and he slept until his usual 6am the next morning. The next morning I asked him if he had had a bad dream “no” he replied. He was his usual happy self.

The next week went on uneventfully, until one night the exact same thing happened, this time it was around midnight and this time for the first time ever he scratched and bit me too. Once again, nothing I did made a difference. I asked our GP and health visitor and both told me it sounded like a night terror and that unfortunately there was nothing I could do but wait for him to outgrow them. Six months later he had his last episode and has never had once since. There was no explanation. He wasn’t stressed, nothing had changed in our lives, he wasn’t too hot, or too cold, it was just “one of those things”.

None of my other children have ever had night terrors, but my youngest son sleep talks and occasionally sleep walks.  Both of these, along with night terrors, are sleep disorders known as ‘parasomnias’. I later found out that parasomnias often run in families. I have been known to talk in my sleep, even to the point of holding full conversations and I also grind my teeth (something known as bruxism – another parasomnia), I’m the world’s worst sleepover guest! It sounds like I passed on my genes to my children.

So What is a Night Terror?

Night terrors are a parasomnia, an unusual behavioural and physiological phenomenon that occurs during sleep. They effect between 1-6% of children. Unlike nightmares, night terrors happen in a stage of deep sleep called NREM (non-REM), a stage of sleep categorised by the absence of dreams. Nightmares on the other hand happen in REM sleep and often cause the child to awaken and retain a memory of the nightmare. It is estimated that at least 50% of children experience nightmares that wake their parents and need their input to get back to sleep.

Symptoms of night terrors include:

  • thrashing around.
  • lashing out, biting and hitting.
  • screaming.
  • shouting.
  • eyes open and with a non-focussed ‘glazed’ look.
  • Child remains deeply asleep and is extremely difficult to wake.
  • no recollection of the event upon waking.

Night terrors are most common between the ages of three and eight, although they can happen earlier and later (approximately 4% of adults still experience them at some point). They also affect boys more than girls. Nightmares on the other hand affect girls and boys equally. The terror usually occurs in the earlier part of the night, before midnight, whereas nightmares tend to occur in the latter part of the night, often up until the morning.

As night terrors occur during sleep, children have no memory of them upon waking. While the episode may be highly stressful for the parents to witness, it is not at all harmful to the child.

How can you Help Night Terrors?

One of the most important things to understand about night terrors is that due to the deep sleep state the child is in you shouldn’t try to wake them. Instead you should focus your energy on keeping the child as safe as possible. Make sure that they cannot knock anything onto themselves, or fall, causing injury. Once you have made sure that your child is safe the best thing you can do is to stay in the room until the terror passes. Keep the lights low and remind yourself that while it is difficult for you to watch, that the child will not remember the episode in the morning.

There are only two things which have shown promise in scientific regarding night terrors:

1. Scheduled Awakening

If your child’s night terrors are recurring try to keep a diary of the times that they happen. if there is a pattern to the timing try to wake your child ten minutes before the episodes usually happen and keep them awake for five to ten minutes. This waking can disrupt their sleep cycle enough to have a good chance of preventing the terrors. See HERE for more.

2. Omega 3 Supplementation

Supplementing with 600mg of omega 3 for a period of four months has been found to lessen the incidence of parasomnias. In addition supplementation has also been found to improve sleep quantity in children. See HERE for more.

Of course good sleep hygiene still applies, make sure the room is not too hot or too cold (18 degrees centigrade is ideal), make sure the child is comfortable and not overtired, reduce stress as much as possible, make sure the child’s diet is healthy and be mindful of lighting (see HERE for more). Unfortunately however aside from scheduled waking and omega 3 supplementation there is no scientific evidence for any other treatments. In most cases it is simply a case of waiting for the child to outgrow the night terror and keeping them safe while they are experiencing them.

The NEWLY UPDATED Gentle Sleep Book – out now! If you would like to understand and learn how to improve your baby, toddler, or pre-schooler’s sleep WITHOUT cry-based conventional sleep training, this is the book for you!


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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