Night terrors in children can be downright scary for parents to witness. Unlike a nightmare, children typically don’t wake up from night terrors. During the episode, they may scream, shout, flail and kick, sit up in bed and appear terrorized. It is very difficult to wake, communicate with or console your child when this is happening.
Night terrors usually happen about 2-3 hours after a child falls asleep, when sleep moves from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep. Usually this transition is a smooth one, but sometimes a child becomes upset and frightened — and that fear reaction is called a night terror.
While night terrors can last from a few seconds to a few minutes, children will usually return to normal sleep after the incident and have no memory of the night terror the next morning. Night terrors are more likely to occur with girls than with boys, and most kids grow out of them by their teenage years.
Try this tip to prevent night terrors
If your child suffers from frequent night terrors, set an alarm for 45 minutes after your child falls asleep, then go into their room and snuggle them enough to make them stir (without fully waking them). This “bump” in their first sleep cycle can often prevent a night terror. These incidents are more common when kids are extremely tired, sick or emotional during the day because they fall asleep extra hard, which can trigger the terrors.
If your child does have an episode
- Speak calmly and softly to your child while using gentle gestures, like a hand squeeze, to offer reassurance.
- Do not attempt to wake your child with abrupt shaking; this can actually make the problem worse.
- It’s also fine to just wait out the night terror. While unpleasant to watch, remember that the episode won’t last long, and your child is unlikely to remember it.
If night terrors persist, talk with your child’s doctor.