Treating and Preventing Night Terrors in Children

A child having a nightmare

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Night terrors are a common sleep problem among children. By some estimates, around 30 percent of children have occasional night terrors. Although they are most common in children between the ages of 3 to 7 years, they can occur at almost any age.

Night terrors are usually considered to be normal or benign. Still, they are often very scary and distressing to parents who get anxious, especially during a child's first night terror.

Recognizing Night Terrors

When you hear how most experts describe night terrors, it is easy to see why parents find them distressing. Children who have night terrors are often described as 'bolting upright' with their eyes wide open, with a look of fear and panic, and letting out a 'blood-curdling scream'. These kids will usually also be sweating, breathing fast and have a rapid heart rate (autonomic signs). And although it will seem like they are awake, during a night terror, children will appear confused, will not be consolable, and won't recognize you.

Typical night terrors last about 5 to 30 minutes and afterward, children usually return to a regular sleep. If you are able to wake your child up during a night terror, he is likely to become scared and agitated, mostly because of your own reaction to the night terror, especially if you were shaking or yelling at him to wake up.

Instead of trying to wake up a child having a night terror, it is usually better to just make sure he is safe, comfort him if you can, and help him return to sleep once it is over.

Night Terrors vs. Nightmares

The diagnosis of night terrors is usually made by the history of a child 'waking' early in the night screaming and being inconsolable. Night terrors are most often confused with nightmares, but unlike night terrors, a child having a nightmare is usually easily woken up and comforted.

The other worry for many parents is that these episodes are a type of seizure. Although different types of partial seizures, including temporal lobe and frontal lobe epilepsy, can appear similar to night terrors, they are usually brief (30 seconds to a few minutes) and are more common in older children and adults.

Treatment and Prevention

No treatment is usually necessary for routine night terrors. Since they are often triggered in children who are overtired, sticking to a good bedtime routine and making sure your child is getting enough sleep might help to prevent them.

Did your child just give up his nap? Is she going to bed later or waking up earlier? Are you on a trip and out of your child's usual sleep routine?

These are all things that might trigger night terrors. A sleep diary might help you recognize these or another trigger.

For children who get frequent night terrors, it might help to wake your child up before the time that he usually has a night terror (scheduled awakenings). This is thought to interrupt or alter the sleep cycle and prevent night terrors from occurring (it also might work for sleepwalking). Once he stops having night terrors for a week or so, you might start waking him up less often until everyone is eventually sleeping through the night.

Rarely, sleep medications might be used for a short time if your child gets very frequent night terrors.

What You Need to Know About Night Terrors

Other things to know about kids with night terrors include that:

  • Night terrors are also called sleep terrors or pavor nocturnus.
  • Similar to sleepwalking and sleep talking, night terrors are considered to be a disorder of arousal and are a partial arousal from non-REM sleep.
  • Night terrors and sleepwalking both seem to run in families too, with a high chance of a child having night terrors if both parents had a history of sleepwalking.
  • Unlike a nightmare, children usually don't recall having a night terror.
  • Also unlike nightmares, night terrors usually occur in the early part of the night, about 3 hours after going to sleep.
  • If your child gets night terrors, make sure that babysitters and other caregivers are aware of them and know what they should do if one occurs.

And most importantly, keep in mind that most children outgrow night terrors as they get older.

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