Kids Health Info

Night terrors (night-time wakings)

  • Night terrors are very dramatic awakenings that happen during the first few hours of sleep at night. They can be very distressing to watch, as your child may seem extremely disturbed and upset, and it is very hard to console them. Night terrors are not the same as nightmares.

    About five per cent of children have night terrors; they usually happen in preschool- and primary school-aged children. Night terrors will not have any long-term effects on your child, and your child will most likely grow out of them.

    Overtiredness and not enough sleep can make night terrors more frequent.

    Signs and symptoms of night terrors

    • A night terror usually starts with a sudden scream. Your child may look very scared.
    • Your child may stay in bed thrashing their arms and legs wildly, or get up and start running around the house. Often, they will not notice if you try to stop or console them.
    • They have fast breathing and heart rate.
    • They may be very sweaty and have their eyes open with a glassy stare.
    • Your child will not recognise anyone and is unable to be comforted.
    • Night terrors usually last around five to 10 minutes and may happen more than once during the same night.

    What causes night terrors?

    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 or 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 don’t remember the episode in the morning. 

    Often there is a history of night terrors or sleep walking in the family. Night terrors happen in healthy children, and are a part of normal development. They are not usually associated with serious emotional or psychological problems. There is no link with epilepsy. Night terrors may become worse with illness and fevers, or if your child becomes very worried about something.

    Night terrors are different to nightmares. Nightmares are scary dreams that usually happen in the second half of the night, during dream sleep. During a nightmare, your child wakes up fully and can instantly remember the frightening dream. You can settle your child when they have had a nightmare, and your child will usually remember the waking in the morning.

    Care at home

    While there is very little you can do during a night terror episode, there are some general strategies for helping children who get night terrors.

    • During the night terror episode, stay calm and don't 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 at night time. Lock windows and doors, and clear the bedroom floor of objects so they don’t step on things or trip over.
    • Have a regular sleep time with a good bedtime routine to avoid your child becoming too tired.
    • Don't make a big fuss about the night terror the next day. Children – and their brothers or sisters – can often become upset by your reaction and may become anxious about going to bed.

    If your child is going away overnight to camp or a friend's place, warn the people caring for your child that they may have night terrors. Give them a copy of this fact sheet. Make sure that your child has a good sleep routine before going away.

    When to see a doctor

    Your child may need to see your GP if:

    • the night terrors are very violent and there is a risk of injury to your child or yourself
    • the night terrors are happening a lot and disturbing the family's sleep
    • your child is very sleepy during the day.

    Your GP may refer you to a paediatrician or sleep specialist.

    Key points to remember

    • Night terrors are a part of normal development and happen in healthy children.
    • During a night terror episode, stay calm and don't touch your child unless they are going to hurt themselves.
    • Make sure that your child has a good sleep routine and is getting enough sleep.
    • Night terrors do not have any long-term effects on your child, and most children will outgrow them.

    For more information

    Common questions our doctors are asked

    Will medication help my child sleep better and help prevent night terrors? 

    We do not recommend giving your child medication to help them sleep better. Developing good sleep habits and a good bedtime routine is the best way to help your child sleep better.

    My child seems extremely disturbed when she has night terrors. Is there a possibility a mental issue is causing the sleep terrors?

    While night terrors are frightening for adults to witness and they may seem like your child is having a severe emotional or mental disturbance, night terrors are not usually associated with serious emotional or psychological problems. If your child’s behaviour is worrying during the day, see your GP for advice.


    Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital General Medicine department. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.

    Reviewed March 2018.

    Kids Health Info is supported by The Royal Children’s Hospital Foundation. To donate, visit www.rchfoundation.org.au.

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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. Information contained in the handouts is updated regularly and therefore you should always check you are referring to the most recent version of the handout. The onus is on you, the user, to ensure that you have downloaded the most up-to-date version of a consumer health information handout.