The Screaming Terror in the Night

Is your child waking with night terrors?
night terror bed child scream
© Can Stock Photo / jhandersen

It’s late at night and everyone is sleeping soundly until you are very suddenly awakened by your child’s shrill scream. You have never heard anything like this scream and your heart is in your throat.  You jump out of bed and run down the hall to their bedroom open their door and they are sitting in bed screaming. A blood curdling scream like no other you have ever heard! You rush to their bedside and immediately try comforting them and start doing everything and anything you can possibly think of to help but they are not calming down at all. In fact, they don’t even seem to notice you are there. They are staring right through you like you aren’t even there yet still calling your name. A little scary for a parent, which is why I used to make my husband come in with me. Although it can be traumatic as a parent, the good news is your child will have zero recollection of the event.

Nightmare or night terror?

It can be difficult for some parents to distinguish between a nightmare and a night terror. A nightmare is a bad dream. With a nightmare the child will most likely wake up, cry and once you enter the room, they will either climb into your lap, hug you, or start talking right away. They will see you, acknowledge you are there and calm with your presence.

A night terror on the other hand, is when your child wakes up from sleep screaming inconsolably and does not even know that you are there. A night terror usually lasts 5-10 minutes but can last up to 30 minutes on some occasions.

A child who is having a night terror might do the following:

  • They will continue to scream for you when you are sitting in front of them
  • It will feel like they are looking through you
  • They may breathe heavily, their heart may be racing or they may be sweating
  • They may try to get out of bed and walk around
  • They will fall asleep almost instantly when the episode is over
  • They will not remember the event

Contributing factors for night terrors

There are some factors in your child’s everyday life that may contribute to night terrors. Some of the more common reasons are:

  • A sudden change in schedule and routine
  • Stress (emotional stress - doesn’t necessarily need to be something traumatic.) Perhaps something is bothering them from school or elsewhere.
  • Food sensitivities or allergies
  • Sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings
  • An over-full bladder
  • Certain medications (antibiotics, steroids..) can contribute to night terrors or sleep disturbances

*Sleep terrors tend to run in families and may be paired with sleepwalking

What to do for your child when they are having a night terror

Although it sounds opposite to what your instincts are telling you to do….Sit beside them and comfort them with your soothing voice without attempting to pick them up, or wake them. Attempting to end the night terror can make it last longer. It will end sooner if you let it run it’s course. Typically your child has no idea that you are there but you still want to be present for them so that you can prevent them from thrashing and harming themselves. Sometimes they may wake up at the end and that is when your presence will help to calm them if they are distraught. Most children experiencing a night terror will quickly go back to sleep after as if it never happened.  

If your child is experiencing night terrors, here are some recommendations that could help you through this challenging time.

Making some small adjustments can help reduce or eliminate night terrors all together.

  1. Ensure that your child has a well established, relaxing bedtime routine.
  2. Encourage an early bedtime as going to bed overtired can lead to sleep disturbances and night terrors.
  3. Maintain a consistent schedule and routine throughout the week as well as on weekends.
  4. Take a few minutes to ensure that you connect with your child before bed every night

Dig deep!

To really get a handle on night terrors it is important to start logging and really look for a pattern - how often, when and how long they last can be useful information to share with your doctor but also for your own digging. Log everything in your child’s day to see if there are any links from what they ate, played with, watched or did that day.

Once you see a clear pattern, you can try partially waking them before the night terror typically happens to help them transition into another sleep cycle. This can eliminate the night terror all together.

You are not alone

Night terrors can be quite common in children, which is why it would be beneficial to find a support person that you can talk to you and discuss your specific situation in hopes of finding a solution.