How to Navigate Night Terrors in Children

How to Navigate Night Terrors in Children

The other night, our youngest daughter woke at 4am in a way we have never seen before. It was as if someone else was inside her body…her eyes were open, but it wasn’t her. She was inconsolable. No matter how we tried to comfort her, she screamed for us to escape.

This isn’t new to us, as our oldest also experienced night terrors, but for our youngest, this was the first time and much scarier for us as parents than before. Since we have been through this, I had a few ideas of how to comfort her, which finally seemed to help an hour after it started.

What is a night terror?

A night terror is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare but is far more dramatic. Though night terrors can be alarming for parents who witness them, they do not usually cause concern or a sign of a deeper medical issue. (source)

You may have comforted your child after a scary nightmare. Still, a night terror generally prevents them from being consolable, and often, the child won’t remember a night terror when they do often remember a nightmare.

How to know if it’s a night terror?

During a night terror, a child might:

  1. suddenly sit upright in bed
  2. shout out or scream in distress
  3. have faster breathing and a quicker heartbeat
  4. be sweating
  5. thrash around
  6. act upset and scared


Why do night terrors happen?

Night terrors can be inherited. However, other factors that have been found to contribute to terrors occurring are illness, overtire, stress, and change in routines, such as travel or relocating.

Night terrors seem to happen when the central nervous system is overstimulated. Although the root cause of night terrors is unknown, monitoring the above triggers can help reduce the occurrence of night terrors for your child.

Night terrors can be alarming and frightening for the child and for you as a parent. Here are a few ways we have navigated through night terrors.

How to help your child during a night terror.

I used to try and wake our oldest when a night terror occurred, but I quickly learned that wasn’t the best choice. When night terrors happen, the child is in a profound state of sleep, and it is best to try and guide them back to where they need to be, especially if they were sleepwalking during the terror.

Talking to your child during a night terror seems like it would comfort them, but I have found that it only frustrated mine more, as they weren’t awake. My daughter couldn’t process my words, making the screaming worse. Instead, I found that if I just held her or sat next to her in bed, the pressure of my hand on her back could ease her back to a peaceful sleep.

Strategies to help decrease the occurrence of night terrors.

There are varying opinions on if night terrors can be 100% prevented, but there are many strategies you can implement, which we have, to help decrease the possibility of terrors happening.

Create a peaceful and consistent bedtime routine

We stick to the same routine during the school week,k which is:

  • Dinner
  • Bath
  • Bedtime snack with books
  • Lights out

We use a sound machine and select the same sound every night, which has created a consistent peaceful room they can rely on. Staying consistent with this has allowed our children to know what to expect and allow their bodies to realize it’s time to wind down.

Assess if your child has increased stress levels.

Sometimes extra activities can create added stress we may not initially realize. We found that to be true and decided to remove some activities until our girls were a little older, hoping to decrease their stress load.

Help your child from becoming overtired.

This point goes back to the bedtime routine; however, sometimes, that is just not possible. Sometimes, the bedtime routine has to be skipped to traveling or moving. When that is the case, doing our best to prevent over-tiredness can help deter night terrors.

Safety tips for night terrors.

If your child sleepwalks during the night and/or during a terror, placing an alarm or a high lock on all exterior doors may be helpful. While growing up, I had a family member sleepwalk to the front door, open it, and go outside. Luckily, they were discovered very quickly, but they had a door alarm or high lock; this could have been prevented.

Understanding night terrors can help you as the parent feel more at ease and give you tools to assist your little one back to sleep peacefully. If night terrors continue or worsen, seeking medical advice to assess sleep may be an option to consider.

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