- Night terrors differ from nightmares, occurring when children are partially awake, often with no recollection the next day. Episodes, lasting 5-20 minutes, involve symptoms like thrashing, open-eyed sleeping, and uncontrollable screaming.
- Do not wake up the child during an episode to prevent disorientation. Staying calm until the episode ends and intervene only if the child is at risk.
If you’ve never witnessed a night terror, its symptoms sound like something out of a horror movie: thrashing, sleeping with your eyes open, and uncontrollable screaming. Baby night terrors are scary and distressing, but they aren’t harmful. About 5 percent of children experience night terrors and very rarely do they reflect any larger psychological or emotional problem.
What are night terrors?
Night terrors are not the same as nightmares. With night terrors, children are usually partially awake and can’t remember anything the next day. Nightmares, however, happen during a REM state of sleep and children are often able to recount bits and pieces of what occurred. During a night terror, you might notice that your child is sweaty, has glassy eyes, or a fast heart rate. Episodes typically occur between the ages of 3 and 8 and last for about 5 to 20 minutes shortly after a child has gone to bed.
Why does my baby have night terrors?
Night terrors happen for a variety of reasons, including:
● lack of sleep
● changes in sleep routine
● having a fever
● needing to go to the bathroom
● a sudden noise
● side effects from certain medications
● family history of sleepwalking or night terrors
Night terrors are understandably distressing for parents, but it’s important to know that they’re completely harmless.
What to do when your baby has night terrors:
- As hard as it may sound, do not wake your child in the middle of a night terror. The best way to help your child is to stay calm until the episode has subsided. If you wake them up, they might feel disoriented and confused.
- Try not to intervene unless your child is not safe and at risk of harming themselves with surrounding objects.
- Having a relaxing bedtime routine can help reduce the likelihood of night terrors.
- Avoid provoking worry or anxiety by talking about the incident. Feel free to investigate what’s going on through conversation but try not to give your child any cause for concern.
Remember: Your child usually won’t remember a night terror the next day and they’ll usually grow out of it.
As always, if you’re concerned about your child’s behavior or sleep problems, talk to your pediatrician.
María Mirón is a psychology researcher with a Masters in Clinical Psychology. With over eight years of research experience, she has published and presented extensively on Early Childhood Development forums across the globe and is currently a professor of research methods at the University of Monterrey. She is on a mission to bridge the gap between the science of ECD and practical tools for parents.