Night Terrors: How to Tell if It's More Than a Nightmare

Jeanne Sager

nightmareThere's nothing like night terrors to steal your "sleeps through the night" toddler away from you and turn your household upside down.

One little boy I know has even turned his parents' marriage into turmoil because he wants to sleep with Mom every night -- and we all know what that does to the sex life.

But comment that your kid is having nightmares on the playground, and other parents are quick to diagnose your child with a case of night terrors.

Shame on you if you're taking the medical advice of moms on the playground over a doc, but is there a way to tell at home?

The Stir asked pediatrician Dr. Vandana Bhide for some help.

What IS a night terror?

A common occurrence in late toddler-hood and early school age years. Reason a child has night terrors is unknown.

My daughter sometimes wakes up screaming but not regularly, are there varying levels?

Night terrors are usually limited to a few weeks to months and go away without any treatment.

However, they are really scary for parents (more than the child) because the child seems terrified, and often acts differently than she would normally. She may see things that are not there and be inconsolable. The only thing a parent can do is to hold the child and comfort her.

The child does not remember the event in the morning, and therefore isn't frightened. We don't think the night terrors are due to emotional trauma, bed wetting, etc. There are no long-term health or emotional consequences of night terrors. 

Do kids age out of them? Is there a time when they'll get past it? 

They usually grow out of them without any treatment in a few weeks. 

When should we seek a doctor's help?  

They typically grow out of them, and if they do not resolve in a few weeks, the child should be seen by his pediatrician.  

Is there a treatment for night terrors?

I try to avoid sleep medicine for children if at all possible.

What can parents do at home to help?

Often the night terrors occur when children are not getting enough sleep or need more sleep than other kids. It helps to have a consistent bedtime (consider having one earlier than usual for that child -- it's ok if the child seems like she no longer needs as many naps if she's sleeping earlier at night) and bedtime routine (bath, reading a book).

Dr. Bhide offered us this breakdown of nightmares vs. night terrors:


  • Frightening dream; child may awaken afraid and crying.
  • Frequently first occurs in toddlers and older.
  • Often occurs in the second part of the night during intense dreaming.
  • May have trouble going back to sleep due to anxiety.
  • May remember the dream and talk about it.
  • Not associated with emotional problems, but may reflect inner fears surfacing in dreams.
  • To deal: Awaken and comfort your child; talk to him to ease any stress that may be bothering him; avoid watching TV before bedtime.
  • In the long-term: Talk to a pediatrician if child complains of nightly nightmares.

Night terrors:

  • Screaming, crying, thrashing during sleep; may appear partially aroused, anxious, and agitated.
  • May begin at age 4 or 5 (or at times later).
  • Mostly during nondreaming sleep; episodes start within two hours of going to sleep and last 5 to 15 minutes; occur most often when the child has a fever or sleep schedules are disrupted.
  • Goes back to sleep quickly.
  • Has no memory of the episode.
  • Not associated with emotional problems.
  • How to deal: Treatment with medications not effective; try putting the child to bed a little earlier to avoid tiredness.
  • In the long-term: Most children outgrow having night terrors.

Does your child have night terrors or nightmares?

Image via pink sherbet photography/Flickr

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