Your child’s first night terror is disconcerting to say the least. It likely involves screaming and flailing about while asleep, and as a parent you want to do whatever it takes to provide comfort. You may even wonder if it’s worth taking a trip to the pediatrician to get to the bottom of the issue. Read on for the answer to this question and more.
Night terrors and nightmares may seem similar, but there is one important difference: 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. But it is very difficult to wake or communicate with a child during a night terror; most often, they are inconsolable.
While the night terrors—which can last from a few seconds to a few minutes—seem traumatizing, children will usually return to normal sleep after the incident and have no memory of the night terror the next morning.
Night terrors occur during the deepest stage of non-rapid eye movement sleep and are most common between midnight and 2am. There are several possible causes: They can be triggered by extreme tiredness or a lack of sleep, stress, a change in sleep schedule, or a fever. Night terrors are more likely to occur with girls than with boys, and most kids grow out of them by their teenage years.
While frightening to witness, occasional night terrors are considered normal for kids and do not warrant a trip to the pediatrician’s office. However, because some children may sleepwalk during a night terror, there is the possibility of injury. Frequent night terrors also cause disrupted sleep, which may lead to daytime fatigue.
Talk to your pediatrician if you notice that the night terrors are becoming more frequent, if they’re raising your child’s daytime fatigue level, or if you’re concerned for your child’s safety. Your doctor may recommend strategies such as waking your child 15 minutes before the time that the night terror typically occurs. Medication is rarely used to treat night terrors in children.
While there is no “cure” for night terrors, there are steps you can take to try to prevent them from happening, such as maintaining a consistent bedtime schedule that allows your child to get enough sleep and doing calming activities before bed, including giving your child a bath or reading a book together.
If your child does have an episode, speak calmly and softly, and while using gentle gestures like a hand squeeze to offer reassurance. Do not attempt to wake your child with abrupt shaking, as this can actually make the problem worse. It’s also completely 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 recall any of it in the morning.