Let’s Talk Night Terrors – What are they, and why is my child getting them?

As parents, we want to make our child as happy and as secure as they possibly can be, every hour of every day. There’s only so much we can do, aside from keeping them warm, fed, clothed and loved. Some things we can’t quite control. Recently E has started having night terrors, which are definitely out of our control, and definitely make me feel like an absolute parenting failure for not being able to prevent.


Night terrors are horrible. Think of dealing with someone who has had a nightmare, but still isn’t awake and can’t be awoken. Your child screaming out for you but reacting to the sound of your voice and your touch as if he was being attacked.

E has had a few of these, but last week had the worst one yet. It went on for fifteen minutes, relentless, as if he was possessed. He lay in his bed, one minute snoring happily, the next screaming blue murder while still asleep. Despite my being right beside him and my attempts to soothe him, to take him out of this terrifying state, it went on and on. Cue the frantic googling as to what to do. Whether to wake him. Whether to ride it out. What to do to make it all go away and let my little man go back to dreaming about his cars and tractors.

In the end, all I could do is wait it out. I turned on the bedroom light and the beast got angry. I say the beast, I mean the raging screams coming out of my toddler. It was as if it made the whole thing worse, but I had read that it would quicken the ending of the whole thing. 15 minutes later, it stopped suddenly, and he was back to sleep as if nothing had happened. He was calm and happy, even sleeping with a smile on his face. Me, not so lucky. I didn’t sleep well for the rest of the night, sleeping with one ear open and hoping the rest of his night would go smoothly.

So what are they? According to the Mayo Clinic, Night Terrors are episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep. Also known as sleep terrors, night terrors often are paired with sleepwalking. They’re most common in children aged 4-12 (clearly E is starting early) and are normally outgrown by the time the teenage years roll around.

They differ from nightmares in that the child doesn’t remember them the following day (if only the parents were so lucky), and they also are normally in the early part of the night instead of the later part, which is when nightmares most commonly occur. During a night terror, they might sit up in bed, scream, shout, kick, thrash, sweat, breathe heavily, stare wide-eyed and have a racing pulse. They may also be difficult to awaken and seem inconsolable, and if you do manage to wake them it’s normal for them to be confused. Some can even get out of bed and run around, not unlike sleep walking. It can be quite scary to observe but as long as there aren’t potential dangers surrounding the child’s sleeping area (i.e. things for them to slam into potentially hurting themselves), they should not come to any harm.

Sometimes medical attention may be required, if these terrors become a regular occurrence, if the pattern is very disruptive or leaves the child in fear of going to sleep, or if it extends into the teenage and adult years. Aside from that, it can be considered to not be of great concern, though it may be an idea to mention it at a PHN or regular doctor checkup to have it noted.

As far as E is concerned, I can just continue hoping that he won’t get any more of them, and if he does that he will grow out of them quickly. Knowing that he doesn’t remember them is a blessing, but it’s definitely not something which makes me feel good about being a parent. All we want is to prevent anything that could affect our children and make them upset. For these terrors to affect his sleep so much is heart wrenching.

Fingers crossed for better nights sleep to come.

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2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. We had them. My daughter that is. Or at least I think she had them. It’s so hard to know. She wasn’t a great sleeper from age 2-4. She is now 5. The sleepless nights and interruptions started when she was 2. We did t know what was going on. Sudden screaming. Inconsolable. Like possessed. During the day she had other symptoms like chronic snotty nose. Congested. When she was three we got her assessed and they removed her tonsils, adenoids and she got grommets. Sleep improved. When she was 4 the grommets had fallen out and the nightly screaming started again. Coincidence? I don’t know. She got another set and sleeping improved greatly. She is now 5 and obviously olderanccamcommjnicate better. I wonder if there was acid relation in her case with sleep and eat problems. Has Elliott any ear problems? It’s so hard to know sometimes what’s going on with the kids. We are always looking for answers….. I hope this phase passes. Would love to hear from you

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