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Night Terrors and Nightmares

What are night terrors?

A night terror is a partial waking from sleep with behaviors like screaming, kicking, panic, sleep walking, thrashing or mumbling. Terrors usually occur within 2 hours of bedtime. They are harmless and each episode will end in deep sleep. They are considered normal until age 6. What you may see:

  • Your child is frightened but cannot be awakened or comforted.
  • Your child's eyes are wide open but he/she does not know that you are there.
  • Your child may think objects or persons in the room are scary.
  • The episode lasts from 10 to 30 minutes.
  • Your child does not remember the episode in the morning.

What should parents do about night terrors?

  • Try to help your child return to normal sleep. You won't be able to awaken your child, so don't try to. Turn on the lights so that your child is less confused by shadows. Make soothing comments. Hold your child if it seems to help your child feel better. Shaking or shouting at your child will cause the child to be more upset.
  • Protect your child against injury. During a night terror, a child can fall down a stairway, run into a wall, or break a window. Try to gently direct your child back to bed.
  • Prepare baby sitters for these episodes. Explain to people who care for your child what a night terror is and what to do if one happens.
  • Try to prevent night terrors. Getting overtired can trigger night terrors. Be sure your child goes to bed at a regular time, and it is early enough to give them enough sleep. Younger children may need to return to a daily nap.
  • For several nights, note how many minutes it is from the time your child falls asleep until the start of the night terror. Begin to awaken your child every 15 minutes before the expected time of the night terror. Keep your child fully awake and out of bed for 5 minutes. Continue these wake ups for 7 nights. If the night terrors return when you stop waking your child, repeat this 7 night program.

Call your child's doctor if:

  • There is any drooling, jerking, or stiffening.
  • Terrors happen after the 7 nights of waking.
  • Terrors last longer than 30 minutes.
  • Your child does something dangerous during an episode.
  • Terrors happen during the second half of the night.
  • Your child has daytime fears.
  • You feel family stress may be a factor.
  • You have other questions or concerns.

What are nightmares?

Nightmares are scary dreams that wake children and make them afraid to go back to sleep. They can happen for no known reason but may happen when your child has seen or heard things that upset him/her. These can be things that really happen or are on television. Occasional bad dreams are normal at all ages after about 6 months of age. Nightmares relate to developmental stages: toddlers may dream about separation from their parents; preschoolers may dream about monsters or the dark; school-age children may dream about death or real dangers.

What should parents do about nightmares?

  • Comfort, reassure and cuddle your child.
  • Help your child talk about the bad dreams during the day.
  • Protect your child against frightening movies and television shows.
  • Leave the bedroom door open (never close the door on a fearful child).
  • Provide a night-light, “security blanket," or toy for comfort.
  • Let your child go back to sleep in his own bed.
  • Do not spend a lot of time searching for “the monster."
  • Do not let your child watch scary or violent shows.
  • During the bedtime routine before your child goes to sleep, talk about happy or fun things.
  • Read some stories to your child about getting over night fears.

When to call your child's doctor:

  • The nightmares become worse or happen more often.
  • The fear interferes with daytime activities.
  • You have other concerns or questions.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended to substitute or replace the professional medical advice you receive from your child's physician. The content provided on this page is for informational purposes only, and was not designed to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease. Please consult your child's physician with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical condition.

Reviewed: 06/06