Coping With Night Terrors

sleepingToday on the blog – in conjunction with Touro Infirmary – we are absolutely thrilled to be opening a dialog about sleep through our “Rest Assured: You Are Not Alone” series. As moms we are all often sleep deprived, and we struggle with making decisions around our children’s sleep habits as well. Should we use a crib or a bassinet? Is co-sleeping safe or not? Should we sleep train? And who IS the expert on sleep training anyway? Will the baby ever sleep more than 2 hours at a time? Why does my toddler have night terrors? When do I move the toddler to a “big kid” bed and oh my word why won’t they stay in the darn thing? Our goal through this series is to create a safe place for all of us to open up about the sleep issues that trouble us and to acknowledge that no matter our struggles or choices, we are never ever alone.

Coping With Night Terrors

My oldest was a great sleeper from the time she was a baby. We had her on an amazing schedule; she was in bed by 6:00-6:30 and would sleep for 12 hours. Although 6:30 is early, I loved having the evenings to myself to catch up with my husband and eat dinner uninterrupted. Now that she is older, her bed time is closer to 8:00. This natural progression to a later bedtime is fine and works for us. But what really does not work for us is the night terrors she now gets. These are to be distinguished from ‘bad dreams.’ A night terror is more like a waking dream. It started about a year ago, and the first one was probably more terrifying for us than her.

If you haven’t seen a child have a night terror before it goes something like this: you hear your child start talking or screaming. You go in and think they are awake because they are sitting up in bed. But they are asleep. Sometimes they are violently thrashing on the bed (think Exorcist), screaming, kicking and they don’t respond to anything you say. In fact, touching them or engaging with them can make it worse. They are in a dream world and outside stimulus gets interpreted in that world, not necessarily as love. Also, I’ve heard it joked that if’ ‘you wake a sleep walker, you risk getting peed on.’ I don’t know if that is true, but we learned that trying to wake our daughter from one of these horrible dreams does result in immediate bed wetting!

So if this happens to your child, the best you can do is stand guard at their bedside and ride it out. Only physically intervene if they are in danger of hurting themselves. Don’t be angry or expect them to hear you. They are, as my husband would say, ‘totally tripping.’ After 5-10 excruciating minutes, the terror will pass and the child will fall back into a deep sleep, no worse for the wear. Although the exact causes of these terrors is not fully understood, it has been our experience that it is at least partially caused by blood sugar issues. We have found that the nights of her night terrors coincide with nights she eats very little dinner. At dinner, we are sure to present her with protein and even if she only has a few bites, we always give her a yogurt before going to bed so at least she has something in her stomach. Some nights it works. Others, not so much.

The funny part about the night terrors, though, is that the parent remembers the night terrors. They are crazy! And nerve-wracking. But if I ask Pearl about her dreams when she wakes up, she has no memory of anything. In fact she wakes up bright and ready to face the day, while I am struggling to make it to my first cup of coffee due to interrupted sleep. Hopefully, she will out grow these night terrors and we will look back on this phase as just another part of her development.

Anyone else dealing with night terrors? Any advice?



  1. We just started experiencing these! They are awful and really freaked me out the first few times. Now I can tell when it is a night terror and just try to leave her alone. Waking/talking to makes them worse- you are right about that!

  2. My oldest son has had night terrors since he was about 2. They will get better and then worse again. He is six now. We have noticed a few patterns. If he is over tired or stressed he wakes up screaming. Now we try to enforce a rest time during the day but since he is starting 1st grade soon, that will be impossible. I have found that if I wrestle him out of bed (he is on the top bunk so it is wrestling) and walk him to the bathroom, he usually calms down quickly. Often he will take a wrong turn or try to “use” the dog, plants, anything still.
    A few times he has come out of it and woken to ask me “why are you in my room, mommy?” Once I gave him Gatorade bc he was sick and he couldn’t figure out where it had come from in the morning.
    The doctor promises us he will grow out of it. I hope it is soon! I am preparing for a hard few weeks once school starts again.

  3. Our 3 year old son experiences these occasionally. We have discovered that they are associated to a full bladder. He “wakes up” screaming, crying, disoriented and we turn on lights and walk him to the bathroom (this can be a challenge to convince him and get him there), as soon as he goes he is ready to fall back asleep. I have noticed if we ride it out and get him called down without the bathroom, about 5 minutes later he calls for us to go. It is tough but lots of love and patience 🙂

  4. My son does this and we walk him to the bathroom, he pees, we walk him back to bed, he lays down and goes right back to sleep. This is how it usually goes but sometimes he will wake up multiple times and we have no idea why and just like you said, touching him and talking to him only make it worse. He is four and wakes up his siblings every time he does it. We always make sure he goes to bathroom right before he goes to sleep but it doesn’t really matter.


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