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. 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.

  11. kerry watson says

    Although Wikipedia isn’t traditionally known as a place to source TRULY factual information but I found their summary so so so reassuring. Good luck to all of those starting their night terror adventures. Xx

  12. Mary says

    My daughter started after age one with the very same episodes. Her doctor said she’d grow out of it. Unfortunately, she’s seven years old and still has frequent episodes. When she started Kindergarten she even tried to go out the front door while sleep walking. Which we associated with the stress of starting school. It’s a cycle, the terrors wake her up so she doesn’t get enough sleep which causes her to have more. The school gets upset with us if we bring her in late but she needs the sleep after a rough night. I’m now considering homeschooling. It’s rough. Wouldn’t wish it on another parent much less child.

    • Kelly says

      I am so sorry for you And your daughter! I know the difficulty and stress of night terrors as my now 7 year old goes through stages with them. For us, the trigger is stimulation and stress. Ever since he was a new baby, he was sensitive to stimulation. If he begins a cycle of night terrors, we minimize TV, music etc and even physical stimulation like touching. And stress of course. It helps and they stop. When he has one, we do not touch him at all as the stimulation makes it worse. We just make sure he is safe and let it run its course. Thankfully, with this approach, the duration of each terror is short and the cycle is only a couple of days. Praying for you!

      • Katy says

        I’ve had night terrors all my life and I’m 50! So you don’t always outgrow them, but I’ve found a couple silly things that seem to disrupt the cycle. As funny as is sounds, sleeping on the side of the bed away from the door and moving the bed location. My husbands voice can also help me wake up from one.

  13. Krisha Smith says

    My 20 month old daughter just started this recently and her pediatrician suggested waking her up about an hour before. Not totally awake just enough to break the sleep cycle. We have not had a chance to try this. Luckily, she doesn’t have the terrors every night.

  14. Sarah says

    My son has always had night terrors, starting from about 2, he still has them now and is turning 6 next month, The scary point for us what when he started sleep walking during his night terrors. One night we heard the front door and found him standing on the porch. To cope with his terrors we just lay next to him. He screams and rants about random things. Our son in general is an awful sleeper, he thrashes about all night banging the wall but he also has bad anxiety issues so for him his night terrors are probably a combination of stress and being over tired.

  15. Loulwa says

    My daughter had them for a few nights. Not sure of the cause, but what I did was i knew when she would have them so I would wake her 10-15 mins before she had an episode so that she’s not in deep sleep which is when she has them. For some reason that worked. I would give her a sip of water or tell her i wanted a hug, and sometimes it was just a matter of lifting her blanket off her and putting it back on. It did the trick. After she had her adenoids removed and her breathing became better, the night terrors stopped.

    I know the pain you are going through. Stay strong. I hope it stops soon.

  16. Korenne says

    My daughter had her first night terror about a year ago, and it was the most terrifying experience I’ve ever had. Her trigger is when she is running a fever. She had been sick, and woke up screaming bloody murder and talking in some kind of foreign language (eyes wide open). The only word I recognized was “MOMMY”; however, when I went towards her, she would scream louder. It scared me so bad I called 911. My husband picked her up from behind and we placed a cold washcloth on the back of her neck, and it only took a couple of minutes for her to come out of it. She has a particular high pitched scream when it begins, and I immediately get a cold washcloth. Thankfully hers only lasts about 5 minutes. My heart goes out to all of you who’s last longer….I couldn’t immagine!!

  17. MBE says

    These sound very painful. We too had this issue (among others) and I stumbled upon past lives (not something I was into at all before…). This book was a turning point:
    Once I got into it, my toddler knew and these subconscious past life memories came out and resolved her night terrors (and corresponding fears and physical symptoms). I have had a few people tell me she is very spiritually connected (a “Crystal child”), I am willing to bet all these cases are children who are also sweet, sensitive and open to other realms.
    It can be kind of a taboo subject, but our results convinced me and have led me to further reading. I hope This helps someone here as well.

  18. Susan says

    my daughter started them when she had to change to a new school for 4th grade. She would run through the house screaming and pulling her clothes off. I used a wet compress on her and she would come out of it. They lasted for several months that fall. Scary for sure.

  19. Kevin says

    We went through this with our son about 30 years ago. We never discovered how to stop them from occurring but did develop a way to successfully stop them within a few minutes of onset.
    I would start the shower and put it at my normal shower temperature. I would then pick up my son and the 2 of us would get under the shower fully clothed. (he in pjs). Then I would slowly turn the water colder. In a few minutes the water was very cold and my son would “wake up” (come to). He would have no recollection of the night terror. We’d get dried off, he’d go back to bed and have a restful sleep. I hope this helps one person. Night Terrors were horrific.

  20. erickajen says

    i had night terrors. my son had night terrors. ironically enough, we both have aspergers too. and theres maybe a hint of that here, with the fact that a small change seems to set them off for him?

    anyway its probably unrelated, and this might be an old article, i dont know how to tell. but its something thats interested me. i wonder if theres a connection at all.

    anyway, we seemed to find that taking him to the bathroom helped too. i dont know why, and it was a long time before we tried that.
    he has still gotten some in the past year and he just turned 8. but they are few and far between, considering we would get them almost every night.

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