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Night terrors - What are they and what can you do to help?

Updated: Nov 26, 2023

Some parents will have comforted their child after a nightmare, but if your child ever has a night terror, they will be inconsolable, no matter what you try.

What is a night terror?

Night terrors are a sleep disruption that are similar to a nightmare, only they are more intense and dramatic. They can be distressing to watch but they are not usually a cause for concern. They are common in children between 3 and 8 years of age and can happen where there is a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking. They usually happen in the first few hours of sleep and can be a single episode or happen regularly.

What to expect - During a night terror you child might:
  • suddenly sit upright in bed

  • shout out or scream in distress

  • be sweating

  • thrash around

  • act upset and scared

After a few minutes, or a bit longer, the child then settles back down to sleep. Unlike nightmares, children have no recollection of them as they were in a deep sleep when they happened.

What causes them? - Often night terrors happen when children are:
  • overtired/not getting enough sleep

  • stressed or anxious

  • are too hot

  • are sleeping in a different environment, away from home

What to do when your child has a night terror
  • It is important that you stay calm and wait for them to become calm.

  • Do not try to interact with them, unless they are in danger.

  • Do not try to wake them up - this can cause them to become more agitated and they may not recognise you.

How to help prevent them - There is no treatment for night terrors but here are a few things that can help:

  • Have a good, consistent bedtime routine, that is relaxing

  • Ensure that your child is going to bed at the right time

  • Make sure that your child isn't over-dressed at night

  • Ensure that the bedroom is not too warm

  • Reduce their stress/anxiety

You might find that your child has a night terror around the same time each night. Try to disrupt the sleep cycle by going in 15 minutes before and gently turning them - you don't need to wake them.

Usually children grow out of them, but talk with your GP if they occur several times a night, or most nights, despite trying the above ways of preventing them.

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