Night terrors, or sleep terrors as they are sometimes called, are a bit like earthquakes. Both are jarring and you can’t fully comprehend their magnitude until you’ve experienced one.

Although similar-sounding in name, night terrors are different from nightmares. Nightmares are bad dreams that children can waken from, sometimes remembering what scared them. During a night terror however, even though children may appear and act awake they are fully asleep. Night terrors frequently occur several hours after children fall asleep, while nightmares often occur in the second half of the night. This is because of the kind of sleep – REM versus nonREM sleep – children are having when their sleep becomes disrupted.

The Mayo Clinic says that night terrors can include: sitting up in bed; screaming or shouting; kicking and thrashing; sweating, breathing heavily and have a racing pulse; being hard to awaken; being inconsolable; staring wide-eyed; getting out of bed and running around the house; or other aggressive behavior. Because children aren’t awake during a night terror, parents can’t comfort or console them – making the episodes alarming for both child and parent. 

According to Parenting Your Internationally Adopted Child, “night terrors, nightmares, and bad dreams can arise from past or present fears that are not expressed during the day.” Although adoption and/or foster care can be the kind of traumatic stress that results night terrors, night terrors do not have one specific cause (and while night terrors are most common in children 4-12, adults can also experience night terrors).

Night terrors occur when the Central Nervous System (CNS) becomes over-aroused. This can be caused by: being overly tired, stressed, fatigued or ill; a new medication; and sleeping in a new or different environment.

Because children can’t remember a night terror, they can’t describe what’s causing the intense and often dramatic episode making the experience that much more distressing. While you might not be able to stop an in-process night terror, there are a few preventative measures you can take.

1 | Establish a predictable bedtime routine.

Try to have your child engage in the most soothing and predictable bedtime routine possible. Bedtime routines look different for every family (and children are notoriously good at drawing them out) but the key element is a routine that ensures your child feels safe and secure. To the extent possible, this includes putting your child to bed at the same time every night, ensuring not only consistency but also an adequate night’s sleep.

2 | Do NOT wake a child having a night terror.

If your child does experience a night terror, it can be so disturbing that you’ll want to wake them to “bring them out of it.” This is not advisable. Remember, your child is fully asleep and is unaware of what they are experiencing. If you wake them, you’ll disrupt their sleep and potentially startling them, which may agitate them further. 

3 | Instead, keep them safe and speak calmly and reassuringly.

As best you are able, speak softly, calmly and soothingly. If your child is wandering or thrashing about or flailing their arms and legs, keep them and yourself as safe as possible.  Night terror episodes can be prolonged and intense. According to the experts at Stanford Children’s Health, the episodes can last from 10-30 minutes. Sometimes turning the lights on can end a night terror, at other times rocking your child can help. Often, a night terror will subside as suddenly and inexplicably as it began.

4 | For persistent night terrors, keep a log and consult your pediatrician.

If your child has repeated night terrors, keep a log of these episodes. Record when the night terror occurred, what events your child participated in that day and/or what medications they took. These notations will be helpful to you in discovering possible patterns and may also be something you can present to your pediatrician if the night terrors persist.

If you’re struggling with night terrors or the challenges of interrupted sleep, allow me to offer this – it gets better. Sweet dreams to you and yours.