Sleep Disorders Children Night Terrors

Night terrors in toddlers are terrifying for children and parents alike. A night terror is a parasomnia, a type of sleep disorder characterized by unwanted activity during sleep.

Night terrors — also referred to as “sleep terrors” — affect up to 6 percent of children, according to the Nemours Foundation (2007). Although rare, adults may also experience night terrors.

Nightmares in Children or Night Terrors?

Night terrors are not, as many people suppose, especially vivid nightmares. Nightmares in children are vivid, frightening dreams that occur during REM sleep. Upon awakening from a nightmare, the child will be confused and frightened, but responds to soothing and comforting. The child will probably remember the scary dream in detail.

Unlike nightmares in children, night terrors occur during the deepest stages of sleep, when dreaming does not occur. The child rarely remembers a night terror. Night terrors in children can produce dramatic physical responses, such kicking, thrashing and screaming. As the child is still asleep, comforting is ineffectual.

A Typical Night Terror

During a typical night terror, the child may sit up in bed quite suddenly, screaming uncontrollably or calling for help. This may be followed by bolting from the bed and attempting to flee the “threat.” Attempts to hold or soothe the child may cause more frenzied struggling. Night terrors typically occur within two or three hours of falling asleep.

When a night terror occurs, the child may blunder into or through doors and windows. Physically, the child may be sweating, his heart rate increases, and his pupils seem unusually large, giving him the “possessed” look that often accompanies the disorder. As the night terror winds down, the child slowly calms, and can eventually return to bed.

Stress and Other Causes of Night Terrors

Immature central nervous systems may be the cause of night terrors in toddlers, although some people never outgrow the disorder. Triggers may include medication side effects, fatigue and stress.

Night terrors may have a genetic cause. Children who experience night terrors have an 80 percent chance of having a parent who also had night terrors as a child, according to the Nemours Foundation (2007).

Night terrors in toddlers are occasionally associated with childhood sleep apnea, which causes pauses in breathing while asleep.

Controlling Night Terrors

The best way to deal with night terrors in children is to let the event pass by itself. This doesn’t mean you should ignore the child, whose panic may place them in danger, but it does mean that the initial urge to restrain children is a mistake. Instead, try these suggestions:

Avoid hugging and holding unless the child needs to be restrained for protection.Keep obstacles in the room to a minimum (such as items on floor that could be tripped over). Stay between children and dangerous locations (stairs or windows). Talk calmly and constantly.


Mayo Clinic Staff. (2009). Night terrors. Retrieved September 15, 2010, from

Nemours Foundation. (2007). What are night terrors? Retrieved September 15, 2010, from

Night Terrors Resource Center. (2006). Additional information. Retrieved August 26, 2010, from