The Terribly Frightening Reality of Sleep Terrors

sleeping kidAfter an especially exhilarating day -- one so exciting and jam-packed that you missed nap time -- it would seem logical that your toddler would be in for a really good night’s sleep.

Not so if your son or daughter suffers from night terrors (also called sleep terrors), a horrifying series of events that can include bolting upright several hours after going down for the night, clawing, kicking, biting, inconsolable wailing, and other displays of exorcist-like behavior. Trust me, it’s pretty damn scary.


The estimated number of children suffering from this disorder ranges from 1 to 15 percent, the low end hailing from WebMd and the high end from Discovery Health, usually between the ages of 2 and 8. If you or your partner experienced the same sleep disorder as a child, that means your own children are even more likely to share the same fate.

My husband, for instance, experienced night terrors as a child. Wouldn’t you know it? After skipping naptime a couple days in a row and breaking from our regular schedule, our little banshee had a series of night terrors as well.

How to describe it ... well, his eyes were wide open. He seemed to be awake, but he wasn’t. In a word, he was terrified. I tried to console him, but that aggravated him even more. The only way I could get him back to sleep was to stick his shoes on him, fill up a sippy cup with water, and put him in his stroller. Those are three of his favorite things: shoes, long walks, and agua. I couldn’t get him to tell me what was wrong; instead he just kept yelling shoes! Walk! Agua!

I thought, okay ... my son has psychological problems already. Great job! Then I did a little research, spoke to his pediatrician, and learned that, while alarming and strange, he will most likely outgrow it. Moreover, sleep terrors are preventable and relatively easy to control.

Here’s what you need to know if your son or daughter experiences them:

  • A night terror is a sleep disorder consisting of extreme terror and inability to regain full consciousness. Your child will seem confused and behave as if she doesn’t recognize you.
  • After the episode, he or she will normally settle back to sleep with no recollection of what occurred during the night.
  • Episodes occur for a couple of weeks and can last anywhere from a few minutes to more than half an hour.
  • Expect a look of fear or panic, and perhaps screaming, sweating, rapid breathing, and an increased heart rate.
  • IMPORTANT: Try to refrain from consoling her as this will only make the terror worse. Make sure she is not endangering herself physically, of course. Otherwise, keep your hands off and mouth shut. The episode will pass more quickly.
  • There is no real treatment other than ensuring the safety of the child during a terror episode, and sticking to established sleep routines.
  • If the night terrors are frequent, many experts suggest waking your child up just before their sleep cycle is interrupted. Terrors occur during non-REM sleep.

And, as is every mother’s mantra, don’t panic. Remember: this, too, shall pass.

Has your child had sleep terrors?


*Note: This is mom-to-mom advice -- if your child is experiencing night terrors, contact your doctor.

Image via woodleywonderworks/Flickr


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