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Night Terrors

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Mar 5, 2023.

What are night terrors?

Night terrors are part of a sleep disorder that causes your child to wake up suddenly in fear. Your child does not remember the terror the next day. Night terrors are not the same as nightmares. Nightmares happen when your child is dreaming. Night terrors happen when your child is between being awake and asleep.

What increases my child's risk for night terrors?

Night terrors are most common in children 4 to 7 years old. The exact cause of night terrors is not known. The following may increase your child's risk:

  • Fever or illness
  • Stress, such as toilet training problems, having a new babysitter, or starting a new school
  • A family history of night terrors
  • Not enough sleep or feeling more tired than usual
  • Too much physical activity
  • Large amounts of caffeine
  • Certain conditions, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Having another sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea

What are the signs and symptoms of night terrors?

A night terror may last less than 1 minute or up to 30 minutes. The terror may happen while your child is in bed. Your child may walk or run during the terror. Your child may have any of the following during a terror:

  • Breathing fast, sweating, or a rapid heartbeat
  • Not being able to recognize or respond to you when you speak to or touch him or her
  • No response to someone who tries to comfort him or her
  • Screams, cries, shouts, gasps, or moans
  • Sitting up, with a wide-eyed stare, or looking confused or scared
  • Kicks, rolls, or thrashes in bed

How are night terrors diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider will ask about your child's health history, night terrors, and sleep patterns. The provider may order a sleep study for your child. A sleep study gives information about your child's brain, heart, and breathing during sleep. Other tests may be used to rule out possible causes of your child's symptoms.

How are night terrors treated?

No treatment is needed for night terrors. Most children outgrow night terrors as they get older. Healthcare providers will help you learn to prevent or manage your child's night terrors.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

What can I do to help my child prevent or manage night terrors?

  • Stay calm. Do not panic while your child is having a night terror. Do not wake your child during a night terror. Your child will fall back to sleep on his or her own.
  • Make your child's bedroom safe. Do not place things that may break, such as toys, a lamp, or a mirror, near your child. Your child could get hurt by these things if he or she gets out of bed or kicks or thrashes about in his or her bed.
  • Keep your child safe. Lock your windows and doors in case your child sleepwalks during night terrors. You could also hang a bell on your child's door to warn you that your child is out of bed.
  • Help your child manage his or her fears. Talk to your child about his or her fears. Help your child find ways to deal with stress. Your child's provider may refer him or her to a therapist. A therapist can help your child work through his or her stress.
  • Help your child get ready for bedtime. Limit screen time before your child's bedtime. Do not let your child snack before bedtime. If your child is hungry, make a healthy snack. Ask your child's provider for a list of foods that are right for your child. Make sure your child uses the bathroom before he or she goes to sleep.
  • Help your child get enough sleep. Your child's provider can tell you how much sleep your child needs each night. Keep your child's room cool, dark, and quiet. This will help your child stay asleep. Have your child go to bed and wake up at the same times each day to create a sleep routine.
  • Keep a sleep diary for your child. Use the diary to keep track of your child's sleep habits. If your child has a night terror, record how long the terror lasted. Describe anything your child did during the terror, such as thrashing, running, or trying to leave the house.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • Your child has sudden trouble breathing.
  • Your child has hurt himself or herself, or someone else.

When should I call my child's doctor?

  • Your child's night terrors prevent him or her from doing daily activities.
  • Your child's night terrors are getting worse.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.