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The Truth About Night Terrors and Children

Updated on April 3, 2008

Signs of Night Terrors

- Child appears awake but is deep sleep

- Overwhelming fear or terror

- Strange behavior occurring at night

- Rapid heart beat

- Screaming or crying

- Confusion

- Sweating

- No memory of the event

- Inability to fully awaken

- Irritable and difficult to sooth back to sleep


You may have a childhood nightmare that you still remember, but chances are it was not a true night terror. Night terrors are not nightmares, but more terrifying episodes that occur in later stages of the sleep cycle. This article gives some basic information to help you identify this disturbing sleep disorder.

How is a Night Terror Different Than a Nightmare?

Night terrors can cause children to exhibit strange behavior and extreme fear. Children will appear awake when they are really still sleeping. Kids may be terrified of some unseen stimuli or have a look of sheer terror. Other times they are unresponsive and out of it. They may get up, walk around, eat, play with toys, interact, but they are sill asleep and it can be extremely difficult to wake them and also for them to calm down after having a night terror. If this happens more than a few times, parents should talk to their child's doctor.

The big difference is that nightmares occur in the early stages of sleep and the person appears to be asleep. Night terrors happen in deeper stages of sleep. It seems counter-intuitive, but in this deeper sleep stage, the person can actually appear to be awake, but still be asleep, suffering a night terror.

What Causes Night Terrors?

Some studies have shown that night terrors, like other sleep disorders, are hereditary. If there is a family history of sleep disorders, notify your child's pediatrician. Studies have shown a link between night terrors and stressful situations or lack of sleep. Problems at home or school can bring on the interruption in the normal sleep cycle that causes night terrors. Most night terrors occur after a particularly stressful event or a lack of sleep.

How Can I Prevent Night Terrors in My Child

Developing a nightly bedtime ritual is also one of the most effective treatments for night terrors. Medication is not necessary for the majority of children. Address school or home issues before they become stressful problems and make a consistent sleep schedule a priority. Some people have had luck with the recommended dosage of Benadryl (diphenhydramine) before bedtime. Anything that makes the child feel secure and relaxed with decrease the likelihood of nigh terrors.

While very frightening, most children outgrow night terrors.


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  • Emilia_Lamberto profile image

    Emily Lambert 6 years ago from New Carlisle, Ohio

    My three-year-old occasionally jumps up in the middle of the night crying hysterically. Before I knew anything about night-terrors, I always thought he was awake. Needless to say, talking to him never helped because he did not respond to us, as if he weren't there. After sitting him on my lap, holding him and making him feel safe, he was fine.

    It's definitely unnerving to see it take place, but there's really nothing you can do except comfort them and try to make them feel safe by saying, "It's okay, Mommy's here," or something of the like. Seems to work for my son.

  • profile image

    ScaredSa5m 7 years ago

    WOW! i didnt know what to do because my child was experiencing the worst nightmares i have ever heard of, but this web site really helped me understand what to do!


  • HealthyHanna profile image

    HealthyHanna 7 years ago from Utah

    Very Interesting. Good to know the difference between night terrors and nightmares.

  • Satyam7 profile image

    Satyam7 8 years ago from Ontario, Canada

    I had night terror as a child and I believe if children have a lot of hugs and kisses, it will help to heal night terror. But it can be an underlying problem of something they fear which was true in my case. Very good hub. thanks.

  • Jarn profile image

    Jarn 8 years ago from Sebastian, Fl

    Might want to be careful with Benedryl as a sleeping aid. My brother has suffered from night terrors for the last 17 years. I know it usually happens in small children, but he's the one in a few million people who have them at a later age. Benedryl would always, always, always cause a night terror episode.

  • izettl profile image

    Lizett 8 years ago from The Great Northwest

    Can the real young (starting at 1 yr old) have night terrors?

    Just wondering cause my daughter (17 months old) for the last few months has displayed some of these signs. The first time it happened she was a year old and we thought she may have had a seizure because she was screaming and unresponsive and look terrified. It hasn't happened that bad since but she is still in our bedroom with us because she wakes with a sudden scream sometimes during the night and if I say something to her she usually calms down.

  • TheOrdinaryMystic profile image

    TheOrdinaryMystic 8 years ago from California, USA

    I had night terrors as a child so when one of my sons started to have them, I was prepared for dealing with it. It can be distressing to watch but the best thing was just to stay with him until he fell back to sleep. Good hub.

  • amy jane profile image

    amy jane 9 years ago from Connecticut

    Night terrors are really difficult to deal with if you don't realize what is happening - my daughter has suffered from them on and off for a couple of years now. They are related to stressful situations for her, like fighting with her sister. Thanks for a great hub :)

  • donnaleemason profile image

    donnaleemason 9 years ago from North Dakota, USA

    Thanks for the info. Good to know that my little darlings are probably just having nightmares instead of something more serious. Now, some info on how to stop nightmares that appear to have the same themes would be nice.