We Get It: Night Terrors

ParentingAll Ages136 Comments

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.

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: 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. Shanan says

    I had night terrors when I was young, I’m now 30 but they stopped when I was 9 or 10. It scared my parents so much. They tried talking calmly or holding me & rocking me but the only thing that got me to come out of them was a cold washcloth on my forehead. I don’t really remember them but my parents do. I now have a son that is 4 months old and I am worried that there will come a day he starts having them too. I just hope it never does!

  2. Jody says

    My 6 year old son started having them almost a year ago. His were, by definitions sake, a cross between terrors and nightmares. He was able to tell me all about it the next morning. So weird. We were told all the same things about the causes and what to do. Nothing worked. About that same time I was told about essential oils and through various conversations decided to try it. I bought some lavender essential oil (there are trusted companies online that are much cheaper than the home based business ones if you’re on a tight budget like we are). Within a week they were completely gone. Recently he showed signs of beginning a terror, but that was because he was on an antibiotic for strep, and he never fully went into it. I use a diffuser, put about 4 drops lavender in it with water, and begin at story time, just before they fall asleep. You can also rub some oil on the bottom of their feet. It’s all natural and has helped our entire family! Hope all works out well for your family!

  3. patti martin says

    when my children were little, they had night terrors. i remember being so frightened myself because i was not able to help them. as time went on, i noticed a pattern. i had read that it occurs during growth spurts. sometimes the neurons in their brains grow so quickly that there can be a slight gap between them, and that is what is happening when they appear awake but don’t function as if they are. after reading that, i did notice that the night terrors would happen several times within a week or two, and then not for months. then the cycle would happen again. i believe their explanation to be accurate. as my children got older, it happened less and less. i have now seen one of my grandchildren have them. your way of dealing with them seems to be the best. just be sure they cannot hurt themself, and speak, sing, or pray as you watch them until they return to sleep.

  4. Sarah says

    My youngest started having night terrors around the age of 2. I thought they were caused by him being overly tired, or not getting a good nap during the day. 3 years ago, I started the family on a clean/real good diet which ended up eliminated all artificial food coloring. His night terrors stopped! Now, he only gets them when he has food/drink with a lot artificial food dyes….such as after birthday parties, etc. Good luck with your son! It’s never any fun.

  5. Darcy says

    Thank you thank you thank you!
    My 3 year old has sporadic night terrors and has since he was 18 months. It’s comforting to know that other moms are dealing with this and also how they are dealing with this. It is so emotionally draining on us- heartbreaking to watch your baby thrash around and scream and there is nothing you can do about it.
    This is great advice and I plan to use it should another episode arise.

  6. Crystie says

    My youngest son, who is now 9, also suffered from night terrors for a couple of years. He seems to have outgrown them as he hasn’t had one in a while. I also didn’t know what it was or what caused it so I did some research and kept and journal of what he had done and eaten on the days that he had one. I started to notice certain things were triggering the night terrors:
    – TEMPERATURE (not necessarily from being sick. I had to make sure that he didn’t fall asleep in clothing that was too warm or sleep with too many blankets on)

    I hope this helps others recognises triggers. Good luck

    • Jona says

      I Agree with Crystie, my 6yo been having this night terror bout 2yrs now, matter fact he just had one bout an hr ago :(
      Somedays he doesnt get it for like a week straight. But he has been on an antibiotics and had a fever so i think it triggered it. He had it last 3nights now.
      I just always pray he will soon grow out of it. It sure is something weird thing though. ” night Terror?!”
      First, i thought he was having a nightmare then maybe seeing things like a ghost or something but then now recently i just realized that its something called ” night terror” :(
      All of his symptoms matches to what it says :(

      I wish all of the parents and ur little ones good luck and the bests!

    • Cherrie says

      I completely agree with making sure they aren’t dressed too warmly or have too many blankets on.

      My son had night terrors regularly until I started to check on him not long after he went to sleep. If he felt a bit hot/sweaty I would take off a layer or two of blankets. After this he quickly stopped having them.

      Also, when he had them we would sit him in front of the TV and let him watch “Bob the Builder”. This & the change of room/temperature would usually calmed him down quickly.

  7. says

    I came across your blog and just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate you writing this post. My daughter(5) has night terrors since she was 3. For her the night terrors started when we said goodbye to her passifier. I can still feel the despair I felt the first time she had one, boy I was so scared to see her like that! I really thought she was posessed. People tend to think it’s just a nightmare but the total lack of being able to contact the kid makes it so scary for the parents. Your kid aches (my daughter often feels pain or insects or something biting her) and you can’t help them.

    Our night terrors are very much under control. She still has them though. For us it’s usually busy days or something really exciting. Luckily I can touch my girl most of the time and for us it helps when I ask her to sit on my lap (I can’t just pick her up, that will make it way worse!) and sometimes I can pick her up and stand in front of a mirror. Showing her it’s me and her and telling her that often calms her down. I have to be careful not to keep her ‘up’ too long or it will be worse too.

    It’s really hard to find out what works for your kid. I just want to say to everyone that is still searching for what works; trust your instincs. It’s your kid and you will know what is right for your kid. Trust me, you’ll find a way. Just remember; no matter how scary it looks, it’s not dangerous (just make sure they are safe if they also walk around or something). Good luck.

  8. Leigh says

    My son had intense night terrors 3-4 times a week and we did many of the same soothing techniques as you described. Then I came across a study that showed a link between enlarged tonsils and adenoids and night terrors. Turns out he had 85% blockage from his tonsils and enlarged adenoids that caused sleep apnea, which brings on night terrors. We had his removed and now are 6 weeks post-surgery and only 2 mild terrors since likely due to a sleep debt. Check out this article (and if the link doesn’t work, just do a quick search): http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/447824

  9. Olivia says

    My 4 yr old has had terrors since he was 2 months old. Lucky for me I can hold him, as it helps me stay calm holding him, talking calmly. Extra snuggles tonight as I wipe away our tears; another episode about 90 minutes after bedtime … just like clockwork. Overtired and full bladder are normally our triggers. Praying tomorrow will be a better rest.

  10. Jennifer says

    Years ago, I looked after a child who had night terrors. I put a bit of honey on my finger and then rubbed it on her tongue. I held her and whispered “Everything is okay! Go back to sleep now…” I put her back to bed in a different position (pillow flipped) etc. I like the cold cloth on the forehead idea too …. :)

  11. Blanche says

    My 6 year old has always had occasions when she would wake just as I was going to sleep or just after – so about 3 hours into her sleep. They dont happen regularly and we still cannot work out what the triggers are. She did it last night and it went on for 2 1/2 hours! Im confident she is awake as she communicates with us and will get out of bed. We might be able to calm her after 20mins or so and then just as we think she is ok, she starts up again screaming and stiffening her body. She is hysterical. We try everything we can think of and cant help but get more frustrated with our approach as it progresses and we tire ourselves. This morning we asked her if she remembered what happened last night and she seems to remember although says she was naughty (we never tell her she is naughty). It really doesnt make any sense to us. She doesnt have dairy or sweet foods very often. More than anything it seems to occur after she has had a fantastic day – yesterday she had a playdate after school and we received her amazing report from school. There was nothing that I can see could have caused this. I am at a loss. :(
    Thank you for sharing your story though, it has made me feel a little better and has given me a few things to consider and try for the next time. Hopefully it wont happen again for a few months now.

  12. Andrea says

    Thank you so much for this article. My son is 3 and has had night terrors maybe 5-6 times total since he’s turned 2. I always wondered why this happened and didn’t know what was going on and literally about 10 minutes ago he was having one so I tried to do some research online and came across this. It really helped and now I feel like I know a little more and how to approach the situation next time.

  13. Melissam says

    my son has this happen, but I use White Angelica oil from Young Living on his head and spine. I finally realized whenever I brought something used hole from a thrift store or specific friends, he would have these episodes. So I tossed every item I could find that was from the thrift store or that was second hand and it stopped. Only occasionally does it happen because of a really negative person that comes thru our life.

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