Night Terrors and Nightmares Commonly Occur in Children Under Ten

Last night I think my son had a night terror experience. He woke up crying and screaming. We tried to console him, thinking he was either teething or having nightmares. My wife and I just held him as he continued this for about 30 minutes. Did he have a night terror? Is this anything to worry about and can they be prevented?


Robert Steele

Robert W. Steele, MD, is a board certified pediatrician at St. John's Regional Health Center in Springfield, MO. He graduated from medical... Read more

Night terrors generally occur in children between the ages of three to ten, and are reported to be experienced by about three percent of children. The episode usually occurs within the first couple of hours of going to sleep, during the first sleep cycle. The attack may last for several minutes to half an hour after which the child goes back to sleep and has no memory of the event the next day.

During the night terror, the child may sit up in bed screaming, thrash about, breathe rapidly, and often has a glazed look in his eyes. During the episode, the child does not seem to be helped by or may even resist parental attempts at comforting. Although the cause of this is poorly understood, there seems to be an association between fatigue and emotional distress.

Therefore, maintaining adequate sleep and decreasing daytime stress (particularly violent TV) may be most helpful. The first thing you as a parent should know is that these episodes are not painful for the child (although they may be quite emotionally painful for the parent to watch), nor do they seem to cause any untoward effects on the child.

So what can you do to help your child?

  1. First of all, make sure you provide a safe environment for your child because often sleep walking occurs during these episodes which can lead to injury.
  2. Determine when the episode occurs, and awaken him to full arousal about fifteen minutes before that time. After four to five minutes, let him fall back to sleep. Discontinue this nightly wakening when the terrors have stopped, which usually takes a week.
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