Helping Kids

Do you know the difference between a night terror and a nighmare? How do you stop your child from having night terrors? Usually affecting small children, experts and parents share the cause of night terrors and tips to ease you and your child's mind during these often scary nocturnal events.

Boy having night terrors

It usually starts at 12 midnight. Both my husband and I are awakened from our deep slumbers to the sounds of high pitched shrieks and garbled speech. This is usually followed by a thud as our son jumps out of his bed and begins his nightly pacing between our bedroom and his in a state of incoherent confusion.

Initially, we thought he was simply experiencing run-of the mill nightmares, however, the frequency of each episode seemed to intensify and our inability to help him snap out of it had us and his pediatrician convinced he was experiencing night terrors.

Bradi Nathan, a New Jersey mom and co-founder of, said her son's night terrors began a few years back and now appear at the onset of an illness. Ms. Nathan admits there have been many nights that she felt utterly helpless as her son grasped onto her for dear life yelling, "Save me." 

"The first terror arrived late at night as my husband and I were in deep REM mode!  It was if Jack was screaming to be saved by a burglar...  like a scene out of a sci-fi movie," says Nathan.

"His screams intensified, eyes rolled back, he was thrusting his tongue, yet he was sleeping the whole time. We immediately called the pediatrician who told us not to wake him, not to touch him, and to repeatedly say, it's okay, you are safe mommy is here. The notion is that if a child is woken out of a night terror then they will be afraid to fall back to sleep and often slip right back into in."

Night terrors or nightmares?

According to Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist specializing in child development and parenting at, nightmares are upsetting dreams that happen during REM (dream) sleep. Night terrors occur during Stage 4 Deep Sleep, or during the transition from Stage 4 to REM Sleep. In other words, during a night terror, the person is actually asleep — according to his brain waves — even if his eyes are open!  In fact, most of the time the person has no recollection of them.

The cause of night terrors

"Night terrors can occur at any age, but small children seem to suffer from them most frequently. In fact, up to 15 percent of kids reportedly experience at least one night terror, "says Dr. Markham. "Scientists think night terrors may be caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system, which regulates brain activity. Most children outgrow them, probably as their brains mature, although some adults do report having night terrors when under stress. This suggests that stress could also trigger night terrors in little ones."

Dr. Markham notes that Stanford researchers have hypothesized that there is a link between childhood sleep apnea and night terrors, so it's always a good idea to have your pediatrician check your child for sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can make it difficult for children to get enough rest, and there are indications that over-tiredness as well as stress can trigger night terrors in people who are prone to them.

Find out the connection here between sleep apnea and hyperactivity or ADHD in kids.

Next page: 13 tips for handling night terrors >>

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Tags: kids sleep nightmares

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Comments on "13 Tips for handling night terrors in kids"

Catherine shephard April 06, 2014 | 6:08 AM

Hi there I'm having trouble with my 5 year old son he seems to be having night terrors which is frightening..seeing spiders everywhere..the problem I got now is he's to afraid at night to go to sleep..

Lucie March 07, 2014 | 5:38 AM

My 21 month old has just been diagnosed with night terrors. I was concerned there was something physical wrong with him as for the last 2 weeks he has woken around 1am screaming and we cannot resettle him for several hours. He gets very distressed if we try to put him back in his cot and last night managed to jump out of it. The exhaustion is really catching up with me and the whole family. He wakes our older daughter up and my husband is now struggling at work. If anyone has any tips please let me know.

D Wilson February 19, 2014 | 9:35 PM

My grandson has night terrors lasting up to 30 minutes sometimes. He is only 15 months old and when trying to wake him he simply screams until he looses his voice. He also pushes and stretches like his whole body is convulsing but not in any kind of pattern. He was a 26 week preemie and I wonder if this has anything to do with it. Are there any good methods of waking them? Any input would be helpful at this point.

Jessica February 18, 2014 | 4:31 PM

I have a 2 year old. He had night terrors almost every night. They would last around 30 min, some times even an hour. He would scream and cry and wouldn't let us pick him up. We pretty much just had to lay him on the floor and make sure he didn't hurt himself. We absolutely could not wake him up. He acted like he didn't know who me or my husband was. My friends suggested diffusing essential oils in his room. We have been doing that for about a month and so far so good. He has only had a couple in the past 30 days compared to nightly. I know it probably wont work everyone but it's worth a shot. If anyone wants info on the essential oils we used my email is jessycalynn81 at gmail dot com.

Robert February 07, 2014 | 12:21 PM

Great read even if old! Our son is going through this and we have no clude what to do. This helps!

Kelly August 29, 2013 | 10:19 AM

I have a 5year old that has nightterrors he's been having them sence he's been born I'm worried about this what should I do I'm scared about it to

Naomi January 28, 2013 | 1:55 PM

I sleep with my 5 yr old child. He had never had a night terror when I'm there. If I am not with him ( those times when I can't/ don't want to go to bed early), he has terrors. Only a few a year but a clear correlation between my presence or my absence.

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