Night terrors are a sleep problem that is most common in children ages 2-6 (but can occur at almost any age). They occur occasionally in about 15% of young children and can last 5-30 minutes. You may see your child bolted upright in bed, crying or screaming, sometimes appearing to be awake but with no recognition of who you are. Night terrors differ from nightmares in that your child is not likely to remember anything in the morning.
Because night terrors are considered normal, you do not need to seek treatment (as long as you have ruled out any underlying medical or mental health conditions). However, they are often very scary and distressing for both the children and their parents. What you can do, is identify ways to help your child cope with the stress and promote a calming sleep environment. Children who are overtired, experiencing stressful life events, or have a fever may be more likely to have night terrors.
If you catch your child in the middle of a night terror, it is suggested that you do not try to wake them out of it. This could scare them—especially because of your own stressed reaction. It is usually best to make sure they are safe (gently restrain if needed) and wait until it is over. You can provide comfort, speak softly and calmly, and help them return to sleep (in their own bed).
Steps You Can Take to Ease the Stress of Night Terrors:
- Develop and practice calming rituals before bedtime (Click here to read a blog about “10 Ways To Help Your Child Unwind Before Bed)
- Eliminate sleep disturbing food and drink (sugar, caffeine, etc.) from diet
- Build a fort out of your child’s favorite stuffed animals in or around their bed
- Spray a tiny amount of your perfume on your child’s wrist to remind him/her of your close proximity
- Use a sound machine (nature sounds) to help your child fall back asleep calmly
- Allow the family pet to sleep in the child’s room to reduce anxiety
- Look for patterns (i.e. keep a sleep diary to track how many minutes after bedtime does the episode occur, how many nights consistently, etc.).
- Consult with a professional to assess your child’s overall anxiety level if needed
- Watch this 2 minute webisode where a Board Certified Behavior Analyst gives viewers 3 tips to get into a bedtime routine