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. Jessica says

    Hi – I struggled with these growing up but they were not well known then and so it took forever to figure them out. I was older and would walk around inconsolably. My parents found drinking water would wake me up for some reason! Not fun at all. I can’t I imagine being the parent watching it happen!

  2. Lisa D says

    Our son started having night terrors around the age of 3. He is now 10. The bigger he got the more complicated it became, especially since he would often get out of bed during the terrors. He would walk around, climb up on my bed, walk to the bathroom, down the stairs. I always follow him and try to escort him in a safer direction but this is hard to do without making it worse.

    When he was 8 he started having nighttime seizures that seemed to have taken the place of the terrors. So we saw a neurologist and had all kinds of test run. They found nothing. A nurse friend of mine suggested taking red dye out of his diet. So we did… and the only seizures or night terrors he has had since then are when he ate something without realizing it had red dye and when he had a fever.

    He asked us to record one of his night terrors or seizures but that is the last thing on my mind during either of these episodes. Plus I don’t think he really needs to see what he looks like, it’s very scary.

    My little piece of advice is to keep a diary of sorts. I keep up with day, time, food he ate that day (and day before if possible), temperature in the house, and in some cases I would take his temp after. We know that if he has a fever when he goes to be he is going to have a terror so we just listen for him. And now we know that if he has a class party or has been at a friends house to listen for him because he tries really hard not to have red dye but it is hidden in so many things you would never even think. His episodes were so random before so I am thankful that we were able to pinpoint the cause.

    I pray that you will all be able to have your ‘aha’ moment.

    Thanks for your advice and some of the other posts. We have been dealing with this for years but I still learned a few new things.

  3. Yulanda says

    My daughter started at 2 yrs.As long as I didn’t touch her she was ok.But as soon as I touched her.It would enhance whatever it was she was feeling.It took her awhile to calm down.Hers would last anywhere from 15 mins – 1.5 hrs.
    She is now 18 yrs.Her last one was when she was 16 yrs where she would sit up and talk and mumble.Then go back to sleep minutes later.

    When she did have them,it was like she was in a daze.
    Her eyes looked different.Like she was a million miles away.She never ever remembered anything.Alot of the times we would also find her in different parts of our house.She would wake up in the morning to ask why we put her in the basement on the couch.She could not remember herself walking downstairs.

    The one time she tried to leave the house.We had to put a lock up high.We found that when her day was stressful.Myself or my husband giving her heck she would have one usually 45 minutes -hr of being asleep.
    She carries her heart on her sleeve.We didn’t even have to yell just talk in a Stern voice would make her cry.Later on that night she would have one.
    The dr did say she would out grow it and she has.
    She also dealt with severe anxiety from 12 yrs-15 yrs.Had to home school her.We don’t think this had anything to do with her night terrors.

  4. says

    My daughter has night terrors, too. Hers began when she was around 2.5 years old (she’s nearly 3.5 now and still has them every now and then). A psychologist friend of ours assured us that it’s often just a normal part of brain development, and we employ a lot of the techniques you mentioned above. Namely just keeping her safe and letting the night terror run its course. It’s still scary, though!

  5. Ibet says

    Hello Jaime

    My son has also struggled in the last year with night terrors – it took me a week or so to realise what was going on as I initially thought he was throwing a tantrum.

    Just to share what I have learned about night terrors – it happens when the child does not get enough REM sleep. The night terror is when a part of the child’s brain wakes up but another part stays asleep. The child is not aware of what is going on and not responsive.

    What has shortened our son’s episodes was 1) to stir him just before we go to bed and not wake him completely 2) when one happened to pick him up, comfort, place him back in bed for 5 min, then go back in and pick him up – this little cycle seems to get him out of a terror far quicker.

    It is a very uncomfortable behaviour to witness. Even though we are very consistent with sleep and our kids have a good routine the terrors has always been worse when we went away, had visitors staying.

    AN extra hour of sleep during bad weeks almost always stopped the terros for a period of time again.

    All the best and thank you for a great blog.

  6. says

    I discussed out night terror situation with a fellow trusted church leader at our church who is a nurse, and it turns out her eldest son dealt with this a couple of years ago…and his triggers were primarily media sources about 2-3 hours before bed. She told me in their eliminating any visually stimulating media (TV, iPad’s, iPod’s, iPhones, etc) 2-3 hours prior to their son’s bedtime, they haven’t had an issue since. It seems some children are highly affected by media over stimulating them so close to bedtime. So, we have tried doing this…and so far, we have success. The only nights we tend to have an issue is when we have nights where we goes to bed a little later than his bed time due to us being out a bit late as a family…otherwise, he is doing much better!

  7. Cheetahbelly says

    Just found this thread last night. Our 6 year old son gets them here and there few times a year. Now he had them two days in a row, last night being every 2 1/2 hrs. And by far most weird and scary. He has a cold and low grade fever so I’m thinking that’s the cause. My question is he does recognize me and calls me to come and get him. Yet he does not see his older siblings or dogs. He profusely declares his love to me while in the midst of the episode of thrashing, seeing things, and hearing voices, he will tell me what he is seeing or hearing. I didn’t find a similar thing online. Has anybody’s child been able to communicate with a parent while in the midst of night terror? It’s scary to me and I really worry about him. He’s a smart and very sweet boy.

    • says

      Yes, our son had communicated with me and my husband during his night terrors (of course we don’t touch him, we just respond to his cries for us)…however, what he talks about is incoherent and he is usually highly angsted…and the next morning we have asked him if he remembers talking with us the night prior…and he declares “no.”

  8. Naomi says

    I have 7 siblings (that’s 8 all together my poor mother haha) and every single one of us had night terrors and sleepwalking issues. Quite a few of my cousins too :P For myself it lasted well into junior high, though luckily most of my siblings grew out of it by age 6 or so. My father had them really bad as a kid also, so I’ve always just thought them a slightly unnerving, but regular part of life. It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned that it didn’t happen to everyone.

  9. says

    My Little Mister, who is almost 3, has had 2 within a week. He wakes up, usually in our bed, screams and thrashes his legs. If I try to touch him, he screams NO between his cries and moves or pushes me away. If I ask him anything he screams NO. I have been terrified both times. Scary stuff. Thanks for sharing the things you have found useful. I hope I won’t need it, but glad I found it!

  10. Vanessa says

    I had night terrors the entire year I was in Kindergarten. Mine were caused by stress because my teacher was abusive. I didn’t know what she was doing wasn’t normal for school so I didn’t tell anyone. One thing I can tell you about night terrors is that they do stop and your child will not remember them. Ever. I’m 29 and I remember that year, I remember my teacher being mean, but I do not remember ever having night terrors. That was a comfort to my mom. Maybe it will be to you, too.

  11. mindybrouse says

    We dealt with these for years too and found an instant solution that shocked us. Seriously. It sounds weird, but it’s true. She would still occasionally have mild ones (some light crying or sleep walking), not the screaming things that freaked us out for so long.

    The solution? Play Handel’s Water Music in her room when tucking her in and all through the night. Seriously. Research shows that music with 60 beats per minute has a physiological effect. We have heard of anesthesiologists who play it during surgery now.

    I wrote about it here (our #1 of 6 had night terrors and #6 has mild ones):

  12. Apezazueta says

    I thought we were the only ones dealing with this. Long story short my now 51/2 year old started having “night terrors” as a new born. We went through every scenario possible, early bedtimes, no food after a certain time, waking up at intervals to prevent an episode. After one started we tried, talking, soothing, being loud to wake up, light, water, rocking, singing, you name it. Then he started peeing during an episode and it didn’t seem right, went to a neurologist. Turned out he in fact suffers from night or sleep seizures and NOT NIGHT TERRORS….. What?! We were in awe.
    The dr wanted to start medication, we didn’t opt out, instead prayed. Our prayers were answered when by coincidence we noticed by not taking naps he wasn’t having episodes. Glad to say he has been episode free for over 8 months.
    I old recommend seeing a neurologist to rule out seizures. Good luck. I hope he gets over this soon. I know how heartbreaking it is to see your child like this. Feel free to email me.

  13. Rebecca says

    I am 29 years old and have had night terrors since I was little. I still have them 2-6 nights a week, depending on my stress level. Mostly screaming, gasping and sitting up in bed, but sometimes I get up and stomp the mattress, try desperately to crawl away from something, fallout of the bed, and I’ve even hit my husband. It’s exhausting. I never remember it, but I know it’s happened because I feel like I haven’t slept at all. My poor, sweet husband. Lol Maybe someday there will be more answers. Almost 30 years of them and no end in sight.

  14. says

    I am 56 years old and believe it or not have been having night terrors since I have been 18. I am from the west indies and until I came here never thought much of it. It bothered my husband and kids so much, they spoke about it all the time. Now that I am here I realize the attention it got and I am deciding to do something about it because it does not seem to get any better. I have no recollection of it, it does not come as a dream or nightmare. I scream and shout and toss and turn and cry sometime. I don’t even think about it unless someone complains. I really hate this and don’t like what it does to others around me , but I have no control. Thanks for sharing your stories, I know I am not alone.

  15. Grzenia Mitch says

    I’ve begun to notice a connection between chocolate and my son’s night terrors. Also my son will scream (sometimes quite loudly) and call out for me but when I come near him it only seems to exacerbate the screaming. He also kicks and it almost seems as if his legs are cramping up. Talking to him makes things worse. He had one tonight…hoping it won’t occur again.

  16. Kathy says

    All four of my sons had night terrors when they were young, as did their father. They really didn’t end totally until they started into adolescence, atlthough as they got older they did lessen. They too, screamed and cried and sounded like someone was murdering them. Was always afraid the neighbors would call the police! We would talk calmly and quietly and hug them if they would accept it. We would often take a cool wash cloth and wipe their faces or the back of their neck in an attempt to wake them. This helped at times, but other times no. Then you just are there to comfort them and wait it out. Scary for sure! I wish I had known the suggestion of interrupting their sleep cycle. I would be willing to try anything. We are now expecting our first little grandson and I will be sure to pass these suggestions on to my son, as it appears to be hereditary.

  17. Heidi says

    I can totally relate to that feeling of helplessness! My son is now 11 and he suffered from night terrors starting at a year and a half until he was about 4. After several years of peaceful sleep, he had a reoccurance (which lasted several months) when he was 8. We had just moved to a new town but I was totally unprepared for that! It was even worse because he would pace back and forth in his room weeping and crying and mumbling while wringing his hands for up to an hour. The interesting part was that we could finally talk about his experience. One night he woke up after an episode and asked completely calm, “why are my cheeks wet?” I explained that he had had a night terror and asked him how he felt during the episode. He didnt remember anything unsettling only some moments when he said “I felt like someone was trying to crush me into a corner and I was trying to get away from them!” Those were the moments when I would try to touch him and comfort him!

    So, be warned that it can come back at a later age during a stressful life event. But be comforted that though it is tramatic for us, it is not tramatic for the child! It really is important just to let it run its course, because our intervention only unsettles the child. Best of luck!

  18. kay says

    My son had the night terrors when he was 6. It was really scary after doing everything I could do to wake him, with failed attempts. Doctor suggested waking him before the episode, that did not even work. So I finally gave him a baby aspirin and that worked. Continued for about six months. I did periodically skip one to see if he needed it and it would happen again until finally it happened no more. I hope this helps some other child or parent.

  19. Barbara Mckinzie says

    My nephew came to live with us the was 4 ,years old and had always had them. He would run thorough the house screaming and crying, we tried to calm him the best we could we tried waking him up betw even and hour if two after he went to sleep this did not work. We finally let him run because hd had as started to hit by then. We were in constantly contact with the doctor and he was also in therapy. We lived in a bungalow at thus time, but moved to a two story house with bedrooms upstairs. Now we are afraid for his safety more now then ever. One doctor suggested to s pray cold w a red in his face. Well it we worked. He did not stop having them but they did nit last as long and he was a ble to be consoled faster, because the w a red as shocked h I’m enough stop running and then my part came to cuddle. They lasted til he was about 9. When his big brother talked t o him about how to calm down when first woke up. Either that worked or he just grew out of them. He’s now the father of a little boy and girl and so far so good


    H school

    E was in therapy

    emived with us and had always had them. When

  20. Barbara Mckinzie says

    Please excuse the mess I typed before had the wrong typing method in so here goes again. My nephew had night terrors so bad that he would jump up and down in his bottom bunk, he was actually jumping up and down on his knees. We lived in a bungalow at the time so we just made sure he was save as he ran screaming and crying through the house. We were in constant contact with doctors and he also in therapy. One doctor suggested that we spray cool water into his face, we thought that was cruell. But when we moved to a second floor we were afraid for his safety. So we did spray cool water on his face. This got the screaming part to stop. Then I was able to cuddle and things were better until the next time, because there were times when he had two a night. He finally grow out of them around the age of middle school. He is now the proud father of two so far so good. Hope this helps.

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