What Are Night Terrors?

What Are Night Terrors?

Night terrors are commonly mistaken for nightmares, but the two couldn't be more different. Although nightmares and night terrors sound similar, your reactions to each should differ greatly.

Imagine that you are having a nightmare that you cannot wake up from. You don't know where you are, or which way is up. Suddenly, someone is touching you. You don't know who it is, so you basically freak out even more. This is what your child goes through when you try to comfort them through a night terror.

My Experience with Night Terrors

Although I've only been a parent for about 2.5 years, I do have a good bit of experience with night terrors. My firstborn struggled with them from about eight months old right up until he was 20 months old. Of course, the night terrors became much more bearable when I learned how to manage them...by doing nothing at all.

As painful as it is, the best possible course of action during a night terror is to leave your child alone. Despite his anguished screams, you'll help him best from afar. As long as your child isn't a danger to himself or others, and he is safely in their crib, there's no need to do anything. The reason for this is that your child is still asleep during a night terror, and any attempt to wake him up will only make the terror last longer than it needs to. I had to learn this the hard way.

When my son had his first night terror, my husband and I understandably thought something was terribly wrong. We heard his sudden panicked screams and rushed to his room, picking him up and holding him to our chests. I even tried to breastfeed him, which usually quiets him regardless of the circumstances--but it only made things worse. It was like my baby was possessed with some crazed panic that he could not shake, and his fit of screaming continued for nearly an hour before he could calm down.

This lengthy ordeal happened because we did all the wrong things: we took him out of his bed, we turned on the lights, we touched him and changed positions. If we had done nothing (as we learned to do later), his screaming would have reached its peak after five minutes, and he'd be sleeping peacefully in no more than ten minutes.

How Night Terrors Differ From Nightmares

The basic difference between a nightmare and a night terror is who is bothered by it the next morning. Children who experience night terrors won't remember them the next day, but parents who witnessed it are certainly disturbed. On the other hand, a sleepy parent likely won't remember their child's nightmare, but children can recall details of their nightmare upon waking, and will seek their parents for reassurance and comfort.

Nightmares are a form of dreaming, and night terrors are a semi-common sleep disorder. While nightmares happen in the middle of the night to the early morning, sleep terrors occur within the first hour or two of your child's sleep, called N3 sleep, or the deepest stage of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep.

In addition, nightmares can happen at any time, but night terrors are usually brought on by the following factors:

  • Stress
  • Sleep schedule distruptions
  • Exhaustion or extreme tiredness
  • Fevers
In adults, sleep terrors may be tied to other underlying issues, but the above causes are most likely behind your child's night terror(s), and he/she will usually grow out of the disorder eventually.

How to Respond to a Night Terror

The best response is to check on your child and make sure she is safe. She may sit or stand up quickly, and scream loudly for a short period. Sleep walking or thrashing about can also accompany a night terror, so it's best to leave her room free of obstacles or toys. Make sure her bed or crib is secure and padded to prevent injury. After you've made sure your child is safe, do your best to wait it out.

If your child sat up quickly and is screaming with her eyes shut for no apparent reason, you know it's a night terror. A screaming or crying child that's mumbling about some unknown fear most likely just had a nightmare. Likewise, if your child is hurt, her cry will be more injured than panicked.

It may be tempting to go and comfort your screaming child. But if you know it's a night terror, realize that your attempts to help will be rebuffed and will likely contribute to a longer terror. Instead, stand by and try to ignore the symptoms while you wait for the end. Sooner or later, your child will slump down and return to sleep as if nothing had happened at all.

It may sound crazy, but staying aloof during a night terror will help your child (and you) return to peaceful sleep as soon as possible, usually within 10-15 minutes. Of course, it's good to make sure it's a night terror, and not something else before responding this way. Good luck!

Featured Image PC: @merezimmermann 
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1 comment

Hi Rachel! Thank you for this. I think this is what is going on with our 7-month-old son. He’s on his second ear infection, and is on a strong anti-biotic called Augmentin, but with no fever. I’ve heard medication can bring Night Terrors on too? All the articles I find address older kids and toddlers, but our boy is 7 months. This has only started exactly when he began this medication, Augmentin, for his second ear infection (not with his first ear infection or Amoxicillin).


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