Have You Ever Witnessed A Night Terror?

My husband and I were sitting watching television one evening last week, when we heard crying coming from upstairs.  We looked at each other in surprise, not used to hearing anything from the children after bedtime anymore.

It took a few seconds for my brain to register that it was one of our children, before I dashed upstairs to see which one.  I found my six year old daughter sat up in bed, but when I asked her what was wrong, she didn’t answer me.  That was when I realised that she wasn’t actually awake.  Even though her eyes were open, she hadn’t registered that I was there.  She was having a night terror.

  • Night terrors tend to occur one to two hours after the child has gone to sleepfear-in-kids
  • They are rare, but generally affect children between the ages of four and twelve
  • They can be triggered when a child has been over stimulated, is over tired, stressed, on medication or sleeping somewhere different (for example)

Night terrors are similar to sleep walking, in that the child looks awake, when in fact they are in between a state of consciousness and sleep.  As with sleep walking, it is advisable not to wake the child, but to gently lay them back down and soothe them until the night terror has passed.

On this particular occasion, my daughter was quietly sobbing and her body was shaking, but I was able to soothe her through the experience and after a few minutes she stopped crying and woke up.  She had no recollection what had just happened and was happy to go straight back to sleep again.

The key difference between a night terror and a nightmare is that, with a nightmare the child will wake up and cry out or come to seek comfort.  They have a conscious recollection of the dream and can often recount some or all of it back to you.  A nightmare also occurs much later during the child’s sleep cycle i.e. in the middle of the night.  In the majority of cases, the child can be reassured and the bad dreams are a short-lived phase.

Everything I know about night terrors is from experience.  My elder daughter had them for about three years, so I understand how distressing they can be (for the parents).  I remember my daughter sat up in bed, screaming, with wide eyes; looking right through me as if she could see something in the distance that was scaring the living daylights out of her.  Her whole body was shaking.  When we tried to calm her down, it would work for a few seconds and then she would start up again.

The first time it happened I cried.  What was happening to my baby?  She seemed to be imagining that someone was trying to murder her.  I have never seen such a scared expression on her face.  Whatever she thought she could see must have been terrifying.

But there was nothing we could do until she calmed down.  Then she ‘woke up’, looked at us as if wondering why we were in her room, lay back down and went straight to sleep again.  In the morning she didn’t even remember what had happened.

It is really important to note that just because your child is suffering from night terrors, this does not mean that they are psychologically damaged in any way and their mental wellbeing will not be affected long term.  But if they are prone to having night terrors, it is important to be aware of the triggers.  Ensure that there is enough relaxation time in the evenings, so that the child does not go to bed overly stimulated or tired.

Be aware of any new or stressful situations that may arise and take the time to talk through them with your child.  In our elder daughter’s case, the trigger was when she started school.  Although she wasn’t having any problems during school time, it was a new and significant event in her life, which was obviously a big step for her.

After much research and experimenting, my husband and I found that the best way to handle the night terrors was to try and prevent them from happening in the first place.  We read that, if you disturb your child about an hour after they have gone to sleep, i.e. by nudging them or turning them over in bed.  You change the course of their sleep cycle, knocking them out of the first stage of their REM sleep. This stops the night terror from occurring.

The research suggests that it doesn’t always work, but in our case it did and it is a really good technique to try.  We did this with our oldest daughter until she was around eight years old and as long as we remembered to disturb her, the night terror didn’t occur.

As difficult as it was at the time, we dealt with the night terrors and now my daughter doesn’t ‘suffer’ with them anymore.  Fortunately, for our younger daughter, the night terrors are less extreme and as we know how to deal with them now, we don’t have to worry so much about them this time round.

Have you had similar experiences with your children?

How did you deal with them?

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Nicola Young

Nicola Young is a freelance copywriter, with experience in all aspects of commercial writing, including articles, newsletters, press releases and web content.She also writes young adult and children's fiction and regularly blogs about her own family life.

Comments

  1. michael says

    My girlfriend and I are 23 and this happened to her when we were staying at a small cabin in upstate new york. It was down the driveway from the actual house where the rest of my family was staying, and everyone was joking that it was a cabin from a horror film. She also had a change in her diet that weekend staying with my unhealthy family, and we talked about how we need to figure out our lives right before we slept. It was the perfect storm for her anxiety.
    About an hour after we fell asleep, I nudged her in my sleep and she just bolted upright and started screaming bloody murder inches from my face. Several seconds later she snapped out of it, acknowledged it was the scariest thing she experienced, mentioned that it happened to her 30 year-old brother, and then quickly fell asleep. I on the other hand was up for the rest of the night terrified, crying, and trying to make sense of what happened. It happened again when she woke up that morning but she snapped out of it before it really started. If I never witness a night terror like that again, I think I would die happy.

    • says

      Fortunately for the person experiencing the night terror, they wake up and don’t recall anything. For the person witnessing it, the look of terror they see on the persons face is seriously frightening and it’s no joke. Hopefully you won’t have to experience it again.

  2. says

    My daughter had her first night terror when she was about 10 months old. We’d just come back from a holiday which apparently is one of the kinds of things which can set a child as young as this off on a night terror,

    From memory, the terrors lasted for about a week or 10 days. They started coming later at night and for shorter durations, till in the end they petered into nothing.

    As the name suggests, it really is a terror to see our children like this – they’re expression is so different from usual, and there’s not recognition of us or acknowledgement that we’re even in the same room. Thankfully it’s temporary, and as you said in your article, not an indication of any deeper psychological trouble.

    I should think that as with most things related to children, each child will respond differently to different methods and techniques in trying to avoid night terrors, or comforting them when they do occur!

    • says

      It is difficult to predict what may trigger a night terror, as children react differently to each other. 10 months is young though, but thankfully your daughter didn’t have the terrors for long. Sometimes they can be triggered by an incident, as you pointed out, but when things settle down back down to normal, the night terrors cease.

      That is what happened to my middle daughter. She watched something on tv that scared her. It didn’t bother her younger brother or older sister, so I hadn’t thought twice about her watching it too. With hindsight I should have predicted it, though, because I know she is more sensitive to things than her siblings are.

  3. says

    I have a friend who still gets night terrors as an adult frequently. She is insecure about it and doesn’t like to disturb others so she will never go on a girls weekend away because of it. :(

    • says

      I can imagine she does. Whenever we went out, we had to make sure that the babysitter knew to go and disturb our eldest daughter. We didn’t want her having a night terror when we were out, as we didn’t want the sitter to have to deal with it. It was the same whenever she went on a sleepover. I didn’t want them seeing her in that way.

      Has your friend had any success with having her sleep cycle disturbed early on?

  4. says

    I actually have witnessed a night terror and they are just that terrifying. Both of my kids went through that at one point in their lives. It is extremely stressful and very sad.

  5. says

    This runs in our family, and I still have them today in my 40’s. My older brother gets them the worst of all of us(7 kids). They end up being very funny stories that we always talk about, and not any of us feel damaged in any way. They can just happen sometimes when you sleep. It’s worse for the loved ones next to us, dealing with it;) I’d say the terrors are felt by them, and not the actual dreamer.

  6. says

    My son would wake up screaming all the time, but his were nightmares. It was a relief when he out grew them. I would also add that scary media can also trigger nightmares and night terors. As adults we sometimes forget that what we’re watching, reading, or even saying could be too scary from a childs perspecitve.

    Thank you for sharing this valuable information!

    • says

      I agree and if your child is particularly sensitive, then it will likely affect them more. My middle daughter was scared to go to sleep the other week after watching something on tv. It didn’t scare my four year old son at all, but it did her. My son loves Star Wars, but my daughter can’t even be in the same room when it’s on!

  7. says

    Each of our children has experienced night terrors to one degree or another. They do not occur frequently, in general, but we have noticed that they are cyclic – when they occur, they occur repeatedly.. Through documenting their days, we’ve found that periods of stress in a given child’s life tend to increase the likelihood of their experiencing night terrors on a given night, as does lack of sleep and poor food choices. We have never woken them up as a preventative, but I’m glad you found that a solution that was workable for your children.

  8. says

    All of my kids have (had) them.. for like 2-3 years.. My youngest hasn’t gotten them yet.. my oldest had them the worst though.. I felt completely helpless.. breaks my heart when they do.

    • says

      You do feel helpless. But disturbing her sleep did help my daughter. Worse thing was, when we forgot to do it and then she DID have one. We always felt really guilty that we could have done something to prevent it.

  9. Tory Blum says

    I’m only 18, and I don’t have children yet, but this sounds pretty scary! I don’t remember myself having night terrors neither my little brother.

  10. says

    I am fortunate that neither of my kids went through this. I cannot imagine how a parent would feel seeing their child having night terrors. Thank you for this very informative post. I will bookmark it and send the link to my cousins who have small children.

  11. says

    My younget son suffered night terrors on a regular basis from the time he was 2 until he was 12. Terrors started with a blood curdling scream sending a chill down my spine. Sleep walking, screaming for help, yelling for mommy, sobbing, and so on.

    Often times he would run down the hall calling for me, i would find him standing at The top of the stairs still asleep. I don’t know who was more terrified, him or me! It broke my heart to see him that way. I cried a lot, prayed even more, cuddled and comforted him. Finally, he outgrew them. Thankfully, he sleeps like a rock now but tells me he still has vivid dreams that scare him.

    • says

      I wonder if there was anything that changed in his lifestyle, diet, or whatever that made it go away. Would be nice to know if there’s anything you can do. That would really terrify me as well.

      • says

        I’ve always thought that he had night terrors because he is adopted but his sister who is also adopted didn’t have them.

        They had the same diet and family life so I don’t think they were contributing factors w the terrors.

        I believe that there are probably many factors that lead to some children suffering from terrors.

        My
        Chris is very tender hearted, a people pleaser, very intuitive and intelligent beyond his years. When he was almost 2, my husband left our marriage. Chris went to the garage door every hour or so for months and said “momma’s car?”
        he would stay by the door until I showed him my car was in the garage then Run off to play. The child was scary smart, and still is. Maybe certain people are just more predisposed to having them?

    • says

      Thank you for sharing your experience. It is important for anyone else going through it to know that children do grow out of night terrors.

      Who knows why some have them and others do not? I think that my daughter is the worrying sort and so we always try, even now, to make sure that she is relaxed before she goes to bed. If there is anything on her mind, she will not sleep well.

  12. says

    All three of my children have had at least one night terror, but they were more frequent with my oldest child, and only son.
    He also had a few sleepwalking episodes when he was younger.
    My youngest has also had a few night terrors,
    My middle child, oldest daughter has had quite a few sleepwalking episodes but I can only remember one night terror when she was a toddler.

    The are very scary for parents. Each time I sit and rock/cuddle my child – talk or sing softly and rub his/her back until he/she finally calms down. Sometimes I can get them through it and back to sleep quickly but there were several times where it took more than 20 minutes to calm my child and even daddy woke and tried to help.

    It is a normal part of childhood, but is very scary for parents to experience.

  13. says

    My daughter used to have night terrors. She would be sobbing in her bed for no apparent reason. It’s a horrible feeling to witness because as a parent you never want to see your child upset and when it happens during their sleep you start to wonder if subconsciously they are deeply unhappy. I’m happy to report that she seems to have outgrown them. I wish I had known this information then since the culprit likely was that she was overtired.

  14. says

    I’m pretty sure my son had one when he was younger. I woke up to him screaming and I ran in there and he was sound asleep! I put my hand on his back and started patting him, telling him everything was okay and that I was there. He quit screaming and never woke up!

  15. says

    My son got them when he was a year old. Young for them, but not impossible. Not knowing what it was we woke him up trying to comfort him and getting him calmed down from that was awful. I learned that if he cried within a couple hours of bed that it was a night terror and to not do anything that might wake him. If he didn’t get a nap for some reason he was almost sure to have a night terror. Luckily they only lasted for about a year. They are truly no fun for the parent.

    • says

      I get scared myself, thinking that my son is going through a horrible experience that I can’t do anything about. Whether it’s a dream or not, I think I just get extremely afraid of him having these experiences!

    • says

      Yes it is definitely worse to wake them up, but when my eldest daughter had a night terror for the first time, we were trying desperately to wake her up, so that she could ‘leave’ the horrible place she was in. We soon realised, though, that it wasn’t helping. The important thing to cling on to is the fact that they don’t remember them. It’s just the parents left as emotional wrecks!

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