How to Spot, Ease & Prevent Night Terrors in Children

By Erica Garza ·

Parents of children who struggle with night terrors know all too well how upsetting the experience can be for the whole family. These episodes, which can last mere seconds or several minutes, may include screaming fits, intense fear, and helpless flailing. This can lead to fragmented sleep, in which the child does not obtain proper rest.

What Causes Night Terrors in Children

Though undesirable, night terrors are common, affecting 40 percent of children. They typically occur in the first third to first half of the night, during the deepest stage of non-rapid eye movement, and rarely during naps. Factors that can contribute to sleep terrors include sleep deprivation and extreme tiredness, stress, sleep schedule disruptions, travel, and fever. Certain underlying conditions may contribute to sleep terrors, including sleep apnea, restless legs or mood disorders like anxiety or depression.

How to Spot Them

Unlike nightmares, in which the child wakes up and remembers significant details about the experience, your child may remain asleep during a night terror and recall nothing. During an episode, he or she may:

  • Scream or shout
  • Sit up abruptly
  • Have a racing pulse
  • Kick or flail limbs
  • Be confused if awakened
  • Sleepwalk

What to Do If It Happens

If an underlying condition like sleep apnea is causing the night terror, then a medical professional should provide treatment for that condition. Some parents practice anticipatory awakening, which involves waking the child about 15 minutes before he or she usually experiences the event. This may require keeping a sleep diary, in which you note how many minutes after bedtime a sleep terror episode occurs.

You are also encouraged to wait it out. Though difficult to watch, a sleep terror usually ends quickly, and your gentle presence may be enough to help the child deal with it. If your child wakes up, speak to them in a soothing voice and help them get back to sleep. Be sure to inform babysitters or other caregivers about your child’s sleep terrors, so they can support your efforts.

Always keep your child’s environment safe, so that if the terror escalates to sleepwalking, he or she will not cause injury.

How to Prevent Future Occurrences

If your child is suffering from night terrors, consider integrating some lifestyle changes that will reduce stress and promote better sleep. This can include:

  • Maintaining a sleep schedule
  • Practicing calming, quiet activities before bed like reading or taking a bath
  • Helping your child identify and talk through stressors
  • Limiting sugar throughout your child’s day
  • Limiting screen time before bedtime
  • Integrating music into your bedtime routine

Most cases of night terrors go away when the child reaches teenage years, but there’s no reason to wait that long for better sleep for child and parent, especially for children with anxiety or hyperactivity issues.

Erica Garza is an author and essayist from Los Angeles and a mother of one. She holds a Master's from Columbia University. Her writing has appeared in TIME, Health, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Women's Health, and VICE.