Your child keep waking up at night; looks frightened and crying: It could be night terror


Occasional Nightmare; most of us had nightmares when we were young or even today sometimes. Most of us have comforted our children for that too. But Night Terror (or Sleep terror) is something more than that.

Night Terror as the name suggests is more fearful and challenging than nightmare. Any parent whose child has experienced it, knows that it is inconsolable fear, no matter what you try.

Night terror has more alarming or dramatic presentation. It is also a type of sleep disruption similar to nightmare. It usually is not a sign of serious medical issues or neurological dysfunction.

Normal sleep cycle has several stages; most important are 2 phase:

  • Rapid eye movement (REM) stage where most of the dreams occur.
  • Non- REM stage: night terror occur during deep non-REM sleep

Technically speaking Night terrors are not dreams. They are rather a sudden reaction of fear that happens during transition from one phase of sleep to another.

 campare NT VS NM

It occur about 2- 3 hours after child goes to sleep. It is the time when child is moving smoothly from non-REM sleep to REM sleep. But sometimes during this transition, child becomes very frightened and agitated and that fear reaction is labeled as night terror.

How the scenario looks like during Night Terror?

Child might suddenly sit up in bed or starts to scream / shout. Child’s Heartbeat and breathing is much faster than normal, he/she might start to sweat a lot, looks scared and horrified. At that time no matter what you try child will not settle down. But after few minutes child will return back to sleep and calm down.

Kids will not remember anything when they wake up in the morning (unlike nightmare where kids remember most of the dream or something).

 night terror

What Causes Night Terrors?

Night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep. It can happen as the brain is still maturing in young kids. Some genetic factor could be there as in more than 80% of cases one of the family member might have experience some form of sleep disturbance (i.e sleep walking or night terror etc).

Night terrors are more commonly seen in children:

  • Who are in some form of stress or ill
  • Who are fatigued or overtired
  • Who are sleeping away from home or in new environment
  • Who have just started taking some new medication

Incidence:  3- 6% of young children may have night terror (whereas almost every kid has a nightmare once in a while). More common in boys

Age: 4- 12 years (but has been reported in kids as young as 18 months).

Prognosis:  They disappear on their own once the nervous system of brain matures. Some children might have only one episode whereas some have multiple episodes before they stop.


Toddler Girl closing her eyes in the bed, perhaps she is seeing bad dreams.

How to Cope With Night Terrors as parents?

  • Keep calm: It can be very upsetting for parents, as they start feeling guilty sometimes as they are not able to comfort or calm their kid during episode of night terror.
  • Be patient and wait it out. Child will settle down in few minutes and will go back to sleep on their own.
  • Provide safe environment for child during might terror (so that child doesn’t hurt himself or others during the episode).
  • Do not try to wake up child: It does not help, it can make things worse; once they has woken up , he/she will be disoriented and confused and may take longer to settle down and go back to sleep.


No treatment for night terrors is available, but we can help prevent them by following these steps.

  • Have a good bedtime routine (try to stick to it during non school days too)
  • Try to reduce your child’s stress
  • Bedtime routine should be simple and relaxing like reading story books, dim light etc
  • Make sure your child gets enough rest
  • Prevent your child from becoming overtired by staying up too late

Understanding night terrors can reduce your worry — and help you get a good night’s sleep yourself.

But if night terrors happen repeatedly, talk to your child doctor, if needed a referral to a sleep specialist can be taken (Besides we need to rule out other brain abnormality).


Dr Rahul Varma

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>