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Bedtime Issues: Children with Night Terrors

Updated on January 16, 2012

What are night terrors?

Night terrors are a sleep disorder in which a child in a seemingly wakeful (to observers) yet sleeping state experiences something very terrifying yet has no memory or only a vague memory of their experience. Children experiencing night terrors have been known to stand up and run around the room, screaming in terror with their arms flailing. They may sweat profusely and their heart rate usually increases significantly. Children with night terrors often look like something out of a horror movie. While the child often has no memory of the event after it occurs, it can be shocking and scary to parents especially when they are unaware of what is happening.

What is the difference between nightmares and night terrors?

Nightmares tend to occur during R.E.M. sleep while the child is still dreaming. Children often wake after nightmares and can remember the details of the nightmare. Night Terrors usually happen in the first third of sleep and more often within an hour of falling asleep. Night terrors do not happen in R.E.M. sleep like nightmares but rather occur when the child is in a non-dreaming state. With night terrors it appears the child is simultaneously half awake and half asleep because they are often yelling, moving, and they frequently have their eyes open. Make no mistake though; a child experiencing night terrors is still asleep. The episode can last anywhere from a few seconds to as long as twenty minutes. Unlike nightmares, children who have night terrors usually have no recollection of the experience.

Is night terrors a common sleep disorder in children?

Night terrors are a common sleep disorder in children. It is estimated roughly 15% of children have had night terrors at one time or another. If we ask most parents if their child has ever had night terrors only a small percentage will usually say yes. However, when parents are asked if their child has ever suddenly screamed out in the middle of the night or if they ever sat up seemingly wide awake and tremendously afraid, a lot more parents admit to having experienced night terrors with their child.

Should I awaken my child with night terrors?

Waking children with night terrors is not recommended. The child has no idea what is going on and whether or not anyone else is even in the room for that matter. Trying to wake children with night terrors will not wake the child and might just result in the parent getting injured.

What should I do for my child with night terrors?

Parents can make sure the room is safe and should child proof so that children with night terrors don’t end up hurting themselves. Some parents may want to just observe their child to make sure they don’t harm themselves. Still, if the room is safe and the child has fairly tame night terrors the parents can usually leave the child alone.

What can a parent do to prevent night terrors?

Night terrors are usually associated with a child being over tired or exhausted from a busy schedule. They usually aren’t chronic and tend to pass on their own. Keeping your child on a regular schedule, making sure they have naps, and have a regular bed time routine can all help reduce the likelihood of night terrors in children.

Can diet contribute to night terrors?

Another factor that can affect a child’s ability to sleep properly at bed time is diet. Some foods make sleep more difficult and interfere with a child’s ability to get a proper night's sleep. On the days following a poor nights sleep the child will be more prone to exhaustion and therefore more prone to having night terrors. Foods that should be avoided are ones that have Tyramine in them. Tyramene is an amino acid that stimulates the production of norepinephrine which interferes with a persons ability to sleep.

Foods with tyramene in them include processed foods like hot dogs, ham, pepperoni, bacon, bologna, and processed chicken nuggets. Other foods with tyramine include Spinach, avocados, eggplant, raisins, tomatoes, potatoes, soy sauces, and tofu. Foods containing chocolate and caffeinated drinks like colas also make getting to sleep very difficult. Rich foods that are difficult to digest, like those with aged cheeses (another food with tyramene in it) and cream sauces, can also make proper sleep difficult. Some of these foods can be eaten earlier in the day but make getting to sleep more difficult when eaten in the late afternoon or evening.


Parents need not worry too much about night terrors. Night terrors tend to be something that most children move past on their own. Making sure children have proper naps and a regular bed time routine can help. If your child does experience night terrors on occasion, make sure to let any other caregivers know ahead of time. We don’t want them thinking our children have been possessed. If you try some of the suggestions listed here and the night terrors persist you should consider consulting a pediatrician.


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