Is Your Child Suffering From Night Terrors?

Help your child have sweet dreams


Sam was five years old when her parents separated. Shortly after they split up, Sam began experiencing night terrors, which led her to scream, cry, shake and sometimes get up out of bed.

Sam never remembered the terrors the next day, but they deeply worried her mother, who brought her to see Danielle Powell, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist at One Village Counseling in Kingston. Powell worked with Sam and her mom on several different strategies to overcome the night terrors.

“Through a combination of play therapy to process confusing changes in Sam’s life, parenting consultations to adjust nighttime routines and time to implement learned coping skills, Sam’s difficulties surrounding nighttime eventually dissipated,” Powell says.

It’s unclear whether Sam’s night terrors were related to the disruption in her family unit or were due to another biological factor.

Eighty percent of children who have night terrors have a family member who has also experienced a sleep disturbance, according to Dr. Emily Becker-Weidman of the Hudson Valley Center for Cognitive Therapy.

What are night terrors?

“Night terrors, which are defined as an over-arousal of the central nervous system during sleep, are relatively uncommon – they affect three to six percent of kids,” says Dr. Becker-Weidman. “Night terrors usually happen about two or three hours after a child falls asleep, when sleep moves from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep,” she says. “Usually this transition is a smooth one. But sometimes, a child becomes upset and frightened – and that fear reaction is a night terror.”

Night terrors are very different from nightmares, which are much more common than terrors. “Nightmares usually happen during REM sleep and although they can be intense and disturbing, children are able to wake up from them immediately and recall at least parts of the dream if not most of it,” says Sarah Gugluizza, a licensed clinical social worker with a private therapy practice in Stone Ridge. “Night terrors take place outside of REM sleep and waking the child up or the child waking themselves up is very difficult if not impossible. Night terrors usually encompass intense crying, screaming or yelling, and fearfulness.”/

While children typically have no memory of the episode afterward, they can be deeply disturbing to parents and other children in the household.

“The best way to handle a night terror is to wait it out patiently and make sure the child doesn’t get hurt if thrashing around,” Dr. Becker-Weidman says. “Kids usually settle down and return to sleep on their own in a few minutes. Watching a child experience a night terror can be scary for a parent, but try to stay calm and use a reassuring voice. Don’t try to hug your child or force physical contact.”

As much as you may want to, you should also resist the urge to try to wake your child up during a night terror. “This usually doesn’t work, and kids who do wake are likely to be disoriented and confused and may take longer to settle down and go back to sleep,” Dr. Becker-Weidman says.

How to cope as a family

While there is no cure for night terrors, there are strategies you can use to cope with them.

First, it’s important to make sure that your child’s sleeping environment is cool, dark and calm so that they are not overstimulated while they are trying to fall asleep. Consistency around sleeping patterns is also crucial. “Maintain a consistent routine around bedtime that include relaxing activities such as reading a book or mindfulness activities,” says Dr. Todd Karlin, the Assistant Executive Director of Clinical Services at Astor Services for Children and Families. “If ongoing stress is a trigger, play or verbal therapy with a qualified professional may be helpful.”

Another option that often helps is a technique called “scheduled awakening.” With scheduled awakenings, parents can figure out when their child typically experiences night terrors and wake him up 15 to 30 minutes beforehand. “This interrupts their sleep cycle so that the night terror never has a chance to happen,” says Dr. Becker-Weidman.

While this option has a high success rate, it can be difficult for a parent to get the timing right.

Dr. Becker-Weidman suggests trying the Lully Sleep Guardian device, which uses a special algorithm to learn about your child’s sleep patterns and calculate awakening times. “It also gently vibrates each night so that your child’s night terror is prevented but their sleep isn’t totally disturbed,” she says.

While most children will eventually grow out of their night terrors, there are several signs that a parent should consult a doctor.

Dr. Becker-Weidman says to contact a pediatrician if your child has drooling, jerking, or stiffening during night terrors, if they last longer than 30 minutes, if your child does something dangerous during an episode, if your child has daytime fears or if other symptoms occur with the night terrors.

If you feel family stress may be a factor, it may be time to connect with a professional.

If other children in the household are scared or stressed by a sibling’s night terrors, Dr. Karlin says parents should educate them about what night terrors are and include them in a pre-bedtime calming routine. “Include everyone in the nighttime routine to empower family members to
support the child and assist in lowering their own stress levels,” he says.

Dr. Karlin says that children who experience night terrors usually begin to have them in early childhood, and they will usually resolve by the time the child is ten or twelve. He says they occur in similar frequencies among
both girls and boys.

Unfortunately, it is usually very difficult to identify a single cause for night terrors. Besides a family history of terrors, other causes might include a lack of sleep, too much caffeine, new medication, poor sleep hygiene, or heightened stress or anxiety. According to Gugluizza, “You could have a perfectly happy, well-adjusted child who still has night terrors.”

Nightmare vs night terror

If your child is experiencing nightmares rather than night terrors, you have some more options for helping them cope. “You should offer comfort and cuddles if they are waking up in the middle of the night and reassure them that they are safe,” says Gugluizza. “You can remind them that you are there to protect them and that you are not going to let anything bad happen to them.”

Gugluizza also suggests singing a song, reading a story or playing a small game to help your child go back to sleep. You can also encourage your child to draw or write in a dream journal to help her process the nightmare.

A good night’s sleep every night is a crucial part of your child’s health and development. Watching your child struggle to sleep well can be incredibly frustrating, but staying patient and helping your child remain calm, relaxed, and stress-free will help her have the sweet dreams she needs.

Elora Tocci is a freelance writer born and raised in Newburgh.