What is a night terror?

The first time my daughter had a “night terror” I was terrified. We had just seen the movie “The Exorcist” and to say the least, it scared my husband and I terribly. Of course it was just a movie, but when you experience your child waking in the middle of the night screaming uncontrollably and you can’t comfort them; nor do they wake up even though their eyes are open, then suddenly stop and go back to sleep, you start to imagine all kinds of weird things. She was pretty young when she started having these, probably only about 2 years old, but none the less, for a parent, they were very scary. I said something to my doctor about it and he told me it is just something that a number of children experience and not to worry, she will grow out of it. He called it a “night terror” and said it was quite common in many children. Well, over the years I have done some investigating and recently found this information on Parents.com. Hopefully this will ease some worries for parents whose children experience this. But remember, if a child continues waking and screaming during the night, you should check with your doctor.

A night terror is a type of sleep disorder called a “parasomnia.”These episodes, which look like nightmares but aren’t, are most commonly experienced by kids between the ages of 4 and 12 but can happen at younger ages.They’re more frightening for parents than they are for kids, who don’t have any memory of them the next morning.

Signs and symptoms

Night terrors (also called sleep terrors) typically occur one to two hours after a child falls asleep – before the child enters REM sleep (the deepest type). Some kids cry and move around in their bed during a night terror; others get up and walk around.”They look at you like they’re awake, but they’re not really awake,” said Rachel Busman, Psy.D., clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute’s Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center in New York City. A child may also sleepwalk or sleep talk during a night terror.

Nightmares, on the other hand, occur during REM sleep. Children truly awaken and may call out, “Mommy, I had a bad dream.” They also may have trouble going back to sleep afterward due to the dream’s scary content. And they’ll usually remember it the next day.

Many children have one or a few night terrors and then never have one again. Other children have several during childhood. Typically, they’re outgrown before adolescence.


Night terrors are more common in boys than girls and tend to run in families. The cause is unknown, but they can be triggered by stress, sleep deprivation and fatigue. Sometimes they’re accompanied by a fever.


“There’s usually nothing dangerous about having a night terror, unless the child hurts himself while he’s walking around,”Busman said. So the best thing parents can do when they happen is to make sure the children are safe: Remove objects from the floor that they may trip over and close the door to their bedrooms so they can’t walk out and fall down the stairs.

Avoid trying to shake them awake, Busman said. It usually doesn’t work and even if they do wake up, it could take them longer to settle down and go back to sleep. “Instead, speak softly and calmly, and gently lead him back to bed. You just need to wait it out.”

Night terrors are usually not a cause for concern, Busman said, but lack of sleep can be. Putting children to bed earlier may help prevent them, since sleep deprivation can be a contributing factor. If the night terrors are frequent and continue to cause disruption to the children’s (or families’ daily lives), she recommends speaking to a pediatrician.

So if children wake screaming in the middle of the night and have the above symptoms, just speak softly and gently to them and keep them safe. They will outgrow this too:)

Sue Junge is an early childhood support specialist for the Iowa River Valley Early Childhood Area and is a Thursday columnist for the Times-Republican. The views expressed in this column are personal views of the writer and don’t necessarily reflect the views of the T-R. For more information, please visit www.iowarivervalleyeca.com.