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Children / Mama Drama / Motherhood

Mama Drama: Night Terrors

Dear Mama Drama:

My 3 1/2-year-old son recently had an episode of night terrors. His older sister went through her share of them but nothing of this magnitude. About 90 minutes after he went to bed, we awoke to his screaming. He was absolutely hysterical: crying, flailing and still asleep. We tried to calm him down but it took 30 very scary minutes before he snapped out of it.

I have heard different advice. Some recommend waking the child up, others say to just watch him closely and talk in reassuring tones until he goes back to sleep. What do you recommend?

~Terror-fied Mama

Dear Terror-fied:

Night terrors can be very scary experiences for parents. Watching your child in terror can leave you feeling helpless and unnerved. Most of us have experienced nightmares and have comforted our children with them. Night terrors, however, are a whole other ballgame!

Your description of the screaming, flailing, and crying as well as the episode occurring within the first couple of hours after falling asleep are common for children with night terrors. The good news is that while terrified during the experience, children do not generally remember it when they awaken. They are often confused upon waking and do not understand what is going on. They can also be quite shaken, especially if woken up by a distraught parent. Some children may take a long time to calm down after a night terror episode, while others may go back to sleep quickly.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that parents:

  • “Remain calm so that you do not frighten your child with a panic-stricken response.
  • Do not try to wake your child
  • Watch your child to make sure that he or she remains safe.
  • Wait near your child until he or she returns to normal sleep.”

A risk associated with night terrors is sleep walking, as children can injure themselves inadvertently. This is another reason to remain close to your child during a night terror episode.

Children often have night terrors when they are over-tired or out of their regular sleep routine. Sticking to a regular routine and making sure your child gets enough sleep can help. Additionally, if your son is having more frequent night terrors, you can interrupt the sleep cycle by awakening him prior to the time he typically has a night terror.

If you continue to have concerns or the night terror episodes increase, please contact your pediatrician. Keeping a sleep diary can give the doctor more information about the patterns of sleep and what may be impacting your son. Typically, there are not medical interventions for night terrors, but possible underlying causes may be addressed. You may also consider some alternative or complimentary medicine treatments such as homeopathy, flower essences, or energy work.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! All emails and identifying information will remain confidential.

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  1. This makes total sense. Thanks so much for the well researched response!

  2. My oldest son (now 6) had the worst night terrors, similar to the one described above and I eventually figured out he would go back to sleep if I told him to. While his brain was definitely not awake and there is no way he could answer a question or even speak coherently, he would usually follow my instructions. He would lay down and go back to sleep most of the time if I told him to. I know this won’t work with everyone and realistically it probably shouldn’t have worked with him, but somehow it did, so it might be worth trying.

    Also, his night terrors were worse when he was in unfamiliar surroundings or we didn’t follow our normal bedtime routine.

  3. Amber, I so glad this was helpful. Thanks for sending the question.

    Linda, thank you for sharing your story. It is amazingly helpful for moms to know they are not alone with these difficult situations,which is one of the reasons we started Mama Drama. It does seems unexpected that your son would respond to being told to go back to sleep. What a relief that you figured that out!

  4. thank you so much for sharing! my son also has had is share of nite terrors and seems to have slowed down. He doesnt get them as frequent as he use to, now once very few months.I have to say I was very scared when he started to have them not familuar with this my heart would just beat so fast! glad he doesnt experince them as often now!Good luck to all of you! They to will pass.

  5. My daughter had night terrors for a few years. It was always at the same time on nights after busy, over-stimulating days. Our doctor had us wake her up only enough to stir her not fully wake up about 2 hours after she had fallen asleep. This worked great for us. She eventually out grew them by age 4 1/2.

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