We Get It: Night Terrors

Night Terrors.

Phew. Just saying it exhausts me.

Seriously. I cannot explain what a night terror is. And I’m [this] close to videoing George when he has one. But can’t bring myself to publish that for the whole world to see.

A night terror is not a nightmare. I can only explain it as something that is so uncontrolled by the child. And there’s nothing a parent can do to control it either.

A nightmare is simply a scare that the child has and is comforted by seeing and being held by their parent.

I looked up the definition of a Night Terror and found that WebMD has a pretty good explanation of it:

A typical night terror episode usually begins approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep. The child sits up in bed and screams, appearing awake but is confused, disoriented, and unresponsive to stimuli. Although the child seems to be awake, the child does not seem to be aware of the parents’ presence and usually does not talk. The child may thrash around in bed and does not respond to comforting by the parents.

Knowing this and also that a night terror is a sleep disorder has helped me tremendously. Just knowing what George was doing was called a Night Terror helped me. It helped me realize its not me. That I’m not exaggerating these episodes.

I had asked about night terrors on Facebook and got an overwhelming response of others that are going through [or have gone through] the same episodes with a child, and got lots of tips on how they’ve dealt with the behavior, too. I’ve tried some of these and will pass along how I’ve learned to cope.

I hope this will help someone else that is going through these same episodes.


So, here I am. Going to pass on advice, that’s not really advice, but only the knowledge of what a Night Terror is and how we are learning to cope with it.

Here’s our story of night terrors, before I knew they were night terrors:

George wakes up in the middle of the night. Okay, not the middle of the night. Roughly 2 or 3 hours into his sleep. Which is also roughly when I go to bed, or about an hour into my sleep.

He screams immediately. Thrashing immediately.

If I touch him, worse.

If I pick him up, he arches his back and throws himself around. I feel like I’ll break him if I continue to hold him.

I lay him down on the floor, he trashes out of control.

He runs into the wall, or the radiator, or whatever is ‘behind’ him, because as he thrashes himself, he pushes himself backwards.

I pick him up again, this time holding him super tight and trying to sing to him, hoping to calm him down.

More screams. And my arms are extremely sore from holding on so tight.

I needed a rest. But my child is screaming.

This usually went on for at least 45 minutes if not an hour or an hour and a half. With my attempts of trying to calm him down with absolutely no luck at all. Until I finally give in and just let him lay on the floor by himself, thrashing wildly until he’s finally given in to his own tiredness and falls back asleep.

Fast forward to now.

The turning point? George’s 18 month checkup where I asked the doctor about these episodes. I felt like I was complaining about a child that just won’t sleep at night. But it was fresh in my mind at this appointment because it had just happened two nights before. So I went ahead and told her what was going on.

Turns out, its a night terror. She handed me some information sheets on both night terrors and nightmares. Definitely a night terror.

Our new approach, after knowing what a night terror is, and knowing that there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop a night terror. You just need to let it run its course.

When George first wakes screaming, I go to his room and I do attempt to hold him still, in case its not one of those episodes. When I find that he resists me holding him, I lay him down on the floor. Let him do his thing.

I lay next to him, but careful not to touch him.

If I talk, I talk very calmly and quietly.

I also turn on his lamp, to allow some light, to hopefully arouse him out of his sleep.

If my husband’s around during an episode [he works nights], he’ll lay next to him as well, and sing quietly, the sound of a man’s voice singing is very soothing.

It has to be one of the hardest things to do as a parent. Watching quietly as your child is screaming to their wit’s end. Nothing you can do.

But, this new, calmer approach, has shortened the length of time that George’s night terrors have been lasting drastically. Now they’re roughly 10-15 minutes. A much more doable amount of time, and the approach is much less exhausting on everyone.

So, what we’ve done to cope with night terrors in our house:

  • Don’t touch the child after you’ve recognized it to be a night terror.
  • Talk calm and quietly, or sing softly.
  • Keep him safe, remove any objects in the area that may be of harm.
  • Turn on a dim light.
  • Be patient.

I have heard of others awakening the child right before the time they would have a night terror, to waken them on your own [and their own]terms and put them back to sleep. This hasn’t been necessary for us yet. George’s night terrors are quite irregular, happening about every other week now. I am very thankful for this because I’ve heard of others occuring several times per week.

While we have managed to cope with the night terrors much better, it would be nice to eliminate them altogether. I haven’t figured this one out yet. WebMD has a few suggestions as to what could trigger night terrors:

Night terrors may be caused by:

  • Stressful life events
  • Fever
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Medications that affect the brain

I thought George’s seemed to be caused by sleep deprivation, but its been happening lately on days that he even gets a good two-hour nap. And we go to bed at the same time consistently.

The only thing I’ve found for us is that it happens to be on days that I’m not around to put him down for nap. It may be my husband, or my sister-in-law, or my mom that puts him down for a nap. Like I said, the nap still seems to be a good nap most of the time, and even sometimes still in his own bed. I don’t know if this little bit of straying from his normal ‘routine’ that day is the cause of it or not, but its just my latest observation.

Whatever the reason for it happening, my end goal is always a sleeping child. Whatever it takes to get there. And it sure would be nice to not have to deal with it at all, but learning to cope with it makes it much more manageable.


We get it. As parents, we all end up dealing with some sort of difficult behavior that our child brings to the table. Its tough to deal sometimes. And sometimes, its just nice to know that others are dealing with the same behaviors.

This Night Terrors post is written as part of The Golden Gleam’s weekly series [every Tuesday]: We Get It.

Check out The Golden Gleam for a list of all upcoming [and past] We Get It posts on difficult behaviors. Next week is about self centered children and how to deal.


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  1. says

    My 6 year old son still gets Night Terrors on occasion. My daughter grew out of them by the age of 3, but my eldest son still scares us with them. I thought he would have stopped them by now, but they still happen, albeit infrequently (once every couple of months). It makes it harder because he’s on a top bunk, but he has never tried to throw himself down it, so that’s some comfort. As soon as he starts wailing I go up to him to make sure he’s safe.

  2. Sue says

    My son had night terrors all the time as a child. This was 35 years ago and there was no information available then. he would have them nightly and they would last forever (1-2 hours) because we would try to calm him down. he would scream, call for us, look past us, push us away, tell us he hated us, etc. It was awful. No one believed us until my sister witnessed one and after that she swore he was possessed. he finally outgrew them (for the most part) when he was 8-9 years old. That is when the sleepwalking began. Then we went from night terrors to sleepwalking. If it wasn’t one it was the other. This continued through his teenage years though not as frequent. My husband and I were so frustrated and often questioned what were we doing wrong. Thank God I can finally see that this is not extremely abnormal!!! We raised 4 children and my oldest son was the only child that went through this. Thank you for FINALLY letting me know that I did not cause this behavior!!!

  3. Bethany says

    I had these when I was a child and I find it so weird because I don’t remember them. Being a child in the 90s, my parents didn’t have the research or sources handy to figure out what to do and just had to wing it. But I can give you some tips that might put you at ease:

    It is very unlikely that this will last past his younger years. He’ll grow out of it when the chemicals in his brain have balanced. Very few children continue having night terrors after the age of 10. And even if they do it’s more of a ‘sleep walking’ sensation. So you most likely won’t have this on your shoulders for long.

    Having a ‘calm hour’ during the day that’s not a nap may also help. Have him not play around and just read a book with him or have him work on a puzzle. Something that has his mind captured but his imagination not going full throttle. Play classical music and just keep the atmosphere calm. Make it a routine so his body and subconscious know what’s not stressful and when he has another terror, play the music and let him do his thing.

    Give him stimulating foods that are good for the development of eyes and the brain. Night terrors are stimulated by a stressed mind going through unbalances. Try and not let him sip on anything carbonated and limit sugary snacks. When my mother took away candy in our home she found that my terrors weren’t as long, and mine would last up to 2 hours at times.

    Whatever you do don’t give him sleepy medicine hoping that it’ll keep him asleep unless your doctor says it’s okay. The brain is already in chaos during a terror and sleepy medicine can make it worse.

    I get that this post is old and you may not even have to go through this anymore, but hopefully these tips help anyone who comes across them.

  4. Becky B says

    My nephew used to have night terrors. My sil found out that the only thing that helped him not to have them is having a cool room at night. Even now that he’s almost a preteen, if it’s warm in his room he’ll have nightmares. Try to keep their room cool at night. Hope that helps someone, it certainly helped her.

  5. Christi says

    I’ve done quite a bit of research and found some other triggers as well, including caffeine, stress in the household, and possibly food allergies. For my older son, his trigger was chocolate. We couldn’t give him any form or amount of chocolate after about 4 pm because he would have an episode. Once we figured that out, they have virtually disappeared.

  6. Karri says

    My 5 yr old son gets them every night. I have to go up and wake him at least until he rolls over or grunts. If I go up to early he will still have one. He wakes up crying, said the voices are to loud, make the noise stop, I want mommy, I want daddy, he looks at us but doesn’t recognize us. I try to comfort him and tell him I’m right here. He doesn’t get violent but he’s definitely scared out of it. His Ped told me I’m doing all that I can and I just have to wait for him to grow out of it. Its harder on me than anyone. He shares a room but his brother and sister don’t wake up. I lay awake in my bed waiting to see if he’s going to have one or have another one even after I’ve roused him. I’m glad I’m not alone and sorry to all the others with violent night terrors. My son walks around the house looking for us but he’s never yelling or angry.

  7. trude says

    My 12 year old has been doing it since 2, full bladder can cause it, if she has colours during the day, chocolate as it has amines, 160b in custards etc, flavour enhancers in like noodles, Alfredo, cheese powders. Lots of things can cause nightmares, and overtiredness.

  8. Nicola says

    Thanks for writing this… our son has been having ‘issues’ with crying out in his sleep for months (he is now 18 months old)… we’ve only just heard of ‘night terrors’ and are intrigued and relieved at the same time. Again, thanks x

  9. LuAnn Meyer says

    Geez. My granddaughter has gone through these and they were terrifying to myself and my husband. Since she has turned five ( in March) we have not experienced any. Praise God for that.

  10. Paula says

    My grandson had horrible night terrors. A friend suggested a connection between red dye (Red 40 especially), so his parents started watching consumption of red dye (it’s in products you would never imagine such as toothpaste, cough syrup, and other medicine!). His worst night terror was after having a red soft drink at a restaurant, which confirmed the connection. We know other kids who no longer consume red dye – and no longer have night terrors. I highly recommend eliminating red dye from the diet of children as you may find the solution to night terrors.

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