Kids Health Info

Night Terrors (night-time wakings)

  • Night terrors are very dramatic awakenings that happen during the night in the first few hours of sleep. They are very distressing to watch as your child seems very upset and cant be consoled. About five children in every 100 will have night terrors. Usually they happen in pre-school and primary school aged children. Night terrors do not have any effects on your child in the future and usually your child will outgrow them. Try to have a regular sleep schedule with a good bedtime routine. Overtiredness and not enough sleep can make night terrors more frequent.

    Signs and symptoms

    • A night terror usually starts with a blood-curdling scream with your child looking very scared. 
    • Your child may stay in bed thrashing their arms and legs wildly, or get up and start running around the house as if they are being chased by something. 
    • They have fast breathing and heart rate.
    • They are very sweaty and their eyes are open with a glassy stare. 
    • Your child will not recognize anyone and is unable to be comforted. 
    • Night terrors usually last around 5-10 minutes, and may happen more than once during the same night.

    Causes

    A child who is having a night terror is stuck halfway between being asleep and awake. They are awake enough to get out of bed, talk/scream and have their eyes open, but they are asleep in that they do not respond to a parent trying to console them. They usually do not remember the episode in the morning. 

    • Often there is a history of night terrors or sleep walking in the family. 
    • Night terrors happen in normal children and usually do not mean significant emotional or psychological problems.
    • Generally night terrors happen in the first half of the night when the child is having most of their deep sleep.
    • Night terrors may become worse with illness and fevers, or if your child becomes very worried about something.

    Nightmares

    Night terrors are different to nightmares. Nightmares are scary dreams that usually happen in the second half of the night because that is when a child has most of their dream sleep. During a nightmare a child wakes up fully and can remember the frightening dream. Children can be settled by a parent and remember the waking in the morning.

    Treatment

    • Stay calm and dont touch your child unless they are going to hurt themselves. Efforts to settle or help your child often make the episode worse.
    • Keep your house safe - lock windows and doors, and clear the bedroom of objects they can step on or trip over.
    • Have a regular sleep time with a good bedtime routine. Overtiredness and not enough sleep can make night terrors more frequent.
    • Dont make a big fuss about night terrors the next day unless your child asks. Children, and their brothers or sisters, often become upset by your reaction and may become anxious about going to bed.
    • Night terrors do not have any effects on your child in the future and usually your child will outgrow them.

    Prevention

    • When your child goes away overnight on camp or at a friends place, warn the people caring for your child that he may have night terrors. This will help them to be prepared. Give them a copy of this brochure. 
    • Make sure that you child has a good sleep routine before going away.

    Follow up

    You may need to see your doctor for further treatment if:

    • The night terrors are very violent and there is a risk of injury to your child or yourself.
    • The night terrors are happen a lot and disturb the family's night-time sleep
    • Your child is very sleepy during the day.

    Key points to remember

    • Night terrors are a part of normal development and happen in healthy children.
    • Even though they are frightening to watch, your child is asleep. They do not remember anything about the episode in the morning.
    • Make sure that your child has a good sleep routine and has enough sleep.

    For more information

    • The Melbourne Children's Sleep Unit at the Royal Children's Hospital
      www.rch.org.au/sleep
    • RCH Centre for Community Child Health
      To book an out-patient appointment please call (03) 9345 5466 - Sleep Clinic.
      Please note, this is not an advice line.  

    • Monash Medical Centre
      Enquiries tel : (03) 9594 5656
    • Other KHI sleep factsheets - see 'Sleep'

    Produced in consultation with the Melbourne Children's Sleep Unit, Royal Children's Hospital (RCH). Many thanks to the parents who helped with this factsheet. First published:  2005. Updated November 2010.

    Sleep Unit RCH

Disclaimer
This information is intended to support, not replace, discussion with your doctor or healthcare professionals. The authors of these consumer health information handouts have made a considerable effort to ensure the information is accurate, up to date and easy to understand. The Royal Children's Hospital, Melbourne accepts no responsibility for any inaccuracies, information perceived as misleading, or the success of any treatment regimen detailed in these handouts.