Anyone Familar with "Night Terrors?"

Updated on October 21, 2008
S.A. asks from Oviedo, FL
23 answers

I'm not sure but I think my 17 month old son is having night terrors. He has always had sleep issues but for the past couple months he has started waking from what seems a dead sleep to sudden crying and screaming. He typically rolls around for 5-30 seconds while crying and screaming and then just as suddenly as it started it stops and he goes back to sleep. He will do this at least once per night, usually 2-3 times per night. Occasionally, such as last night, he starts crying and screaming and instead of rolling around and going back to sleep the crying and screaming will escalate and he stands up and holds on to the side of the crib. It is a genuine distressful, I am scared cry! When this happens I run in there, scoop him up and comfort him. He typically cries for a few minutes then calms down. I change his diaper and offer him water, and put him back in his crib. Last night he began to cry again as soon as I put him down but after 1-2 minutes he stopped and went back to sleep.

We put him to bed by 8 every night and the noises typically start around 12. Last night he has his bad episode at 12 and I heard him crying/screaming again, just for a few seconds, around 4:30. Has anyone had experience with this? Is there anything I can do?

We have an appointment with a pediatric sleep specialist tomorrow and we may submit to a sleep study as he has other sleep issues as well, always has, but the sudden crying and screaming is just so scary, for him and for us! Any advice would be appreciated.

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So What Happened?

Thank you everyone for sharing your stories and for the advice. We are having a sleep study done on our son in the next two weeks. The pediatric sleep specialist had a list of 6 things that indicated a possible sleep disorder and our son does 5 out of the 6! He has always had sleep issues and this sudden crying/screaming at night just adds to his list. We are hoping the sleep study will give us some answers and a direction to head in that leads to our son (and mommy) getting better sleep!

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F.A.

answers from Miami on

Hi - I'm sorry for the trouble your little one is having! My son experienced night terrors beginning around 9 mos old. You can tell the difference between night terrors and night mares b/c they occur at different stages of the sleep cycle. Night terrors happen early in the sleep cycle, maybe an hour or two after going to sleep. Nightmares happen later, I think close to when you're waking up. I remember w/ my son, when he was having night terros, his eyes would be open like he was awake, but it was clear he was not. His pupils were really small and unfocused.

At the time this was happening to my son (almost 7 yrs ago), I did some research at the time and found a suggestion that seemed a little like an old wives tale, but harmless so I decided to try it. The suggestion was posted by a parent of a child w/ night terrors that I believe was also a Dr. They said not to try to wake a child during a night terror. The suggestion was to pick up the child and put his/her feet into warm running water. I know it sounds strange! But, I thought it couldn't hurt - so I did. The next time he had a night terror, I picked him up and put his feet under warm running water. He never had another one. Maybe it was a coincidence, but it could be worth a try.

My niece also had night terrors and she had them for years. Eventually, she did outgrow them. Maybe by the time she was 5. I also remember reading that they can be brought on when the child is overly tired.

On a side note: my son has an autism spectrum disorder and had issues calming down at night and falling asleep. I have been using 1 mg chewable melatonin with him for a number of years, and it has been a life saver. It helps him tremendously and it's obvious when he doesn't take it. Melatonin is a natural substance made by the body at night that regulates the sleep cycle. Kids w/ ASD have been found to have melatonin deficiencies.

I hope this helps! good luck!
F.

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C.S.

answers from Orlando on

My husband happens to have night terrors. I don't believe your son has them. Typically they are during the REM sleep, which is about an hour after falling asleep. I know my daughter went trhough a phase where she would wake up screaming but then fall back asleep. Hopefully the specialists can get to the bottom of his sleep issues for you. Sorry

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C.F.

answers from Jacksonville on

What is a night terror?
A night terror is when your child suddenly becomes very agitated while in a state of deep sleep. She may sit or stand up, shake, move about, and cry or scream loudly. Your child may look like she is in extreme panic.

During a night terror, your child’s eyes may be open – but despite all the activity and movement, she is in fact still in a state of deep sleep. A child having a night terror is inconsolable and will not respond to attempts to soothe or comfort her. A night terror can last from a few minutes up to 40 minutes.

Night terrors are less common than nightmares – only around 1-6% of children will experience night terrors. Generally they are seen in children more than 18 months old and should disappear by six years of age. Night terrors can run in families, suggesting that there is a genetic component to whether children will experience them.

Night terrors seem scary to you but they don’t hurt or scare your child. Children do not remember the event in the morning, and are not conscious of having had a bad dream or a fright. If wakened during a night terror, they will typically be confused and disorientated.

You do not need to be concerned about night terrors. They do not mean there is anything wrong with your child. Night terrors are natural events associated with the normal development of sleep in children. They disappear as children develop more mature forms of deep sleep.

Night terrors are different from nightmares. Night terrors happen during the first few hours of sleep when your child is sleeping very deeply (nightmares tend to happen in the second half of the night during phases of REM sleep). Managing nightmares is quite different because children have woken and might remember and feel upset by the dream.

What to do
The good news is that night terrors will not harm your child.

Avoid waking her during a night terror. She will only be confused and disorientated, and may take longer to settle.

Instead, wait for her thrashing around to subside. Guide her back to bed, and tuck her back in. She will settle back to sleep quickly. If you think she might hurt herself, stay close to guide her away from hitting or bumping into the sides of her cot or other obstacles.

When to get help
If you remain concerned, or the night terrors seem prolonged or violent, seek professional advice. If night terrors are occurring along with other sleeping difficulties, or breathing problems such as snoring, your child may also benefit from an ear, nose and throat assessment.

It sounds to me like your baby may be experiencing night terrors. Does it usually happen within one or two hours of when he went to sleep? Does it seem to you that he is not really awake when he starts the screaming?
You can look up night terrors in the internet for more info. What I've gathered is that they happen because the baby gets stuck in the transition between light and heavy sleep. It specially happens when the baby is overtired when he goes to sleep.

The usual recommendations is to have a bedtime ritual and make sure he gets plenty of sleep.

When he's experiencing the night terror you basically have two choices, either to wake him up (but you risk this hapenning again) or to help him transition into deep sleep. I can usually get my baby to do this by giving her a bottle, having her lie in my arms or on my chest and singing to her. If that doesn't work, I usually just wake her up by taking her to an area with more light and talking to her while holding her. Then I put her back to sleep.

In extreme cases (like when were taking an overnight flight and she kept waking up screaming every 5 minutes or so), some baby cold medicine may help. anon

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C.J.

answers from Miami on

S.,

The key is whether he is awake or not. My son did have night terrors at around 18 months, but he was clearly not awake and did not have any idea that his daddy and I were in the room with him. They would end as suddenly as they began, and typically be about 4 hours after he went to bed. We haven't had one in over 6 months now, although my son does have occasional nightmares. Now, he is awake when we go in his room and tells us that a tiger was chasing him, or there is a monster, etc. Of course, being 2.5yrs old now, he can verbalize and is quite imaginative!

Good luck! C.

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I.V.

answers from Miami on

Hi S.,

When my daughter was more or less that age she also had the night terrors. She would wake up franticly and no matter what I did or said would help, it's like they are in another world and then she turns around and goes right back to sleep. I had asked my pediatrician back then aand she said they were night terrors and they would just go away eventually. She also gave me some papers to read up on it. My daughter is 16 now and never had one again. It was a stage only but they are fine and they don't remember anything at all either. I was very worried but then when she told me it would just stop I felt better knowing it wasnt anything bad. I would just sit by her side until she went back to sleep. I hope this helps in a way that won't make you so nervous.

I.

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L.

answers from Pensacola on

My son had night terrors for a while. He was a little older, but still a toddler. He would wake up screaming, crying, chattering his teeth, then he would lay down and go right back to sleep, and not remember a thing in the morning. Our ped said it was fairly normal, and not to be alarmed. We would still comfort him, but not wake him, and he would be fine.

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S.P.

answers from Miami on

my son has often done the same thing! he is almost 20 months. i just comfort him, and pray! and wait for him to fall back to sleep. i know that's not much help, but just wanted you to know that i've had the same experience!

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L.Z.

answers from Washington DC on

Hi S.,
Our son will sometimes wake up crying really loud when he is over tired or other wise did not take a nap that day and goes to bed late or past 8 pm. Try giving your son more naps during the day, incase he is over tired and hard for him to sleep. Good Luck, L. Z.

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A.S.

answers from Jacksonville on

Don't run in too fast, see if he can calm himself down a little before you go in.
When you do go in just comfort him. Let him know that he can change his dreams and start to tell him a good story or help him think about the day to come and what he will do.
Don't pick him up if you can help it. Just try to get him to lay down and rub his head, back, tummy, whatever you can to reassure him.
What to see what he see's during the day, it could be related to these bad dreams.
My son would remember his hospital stay the first 20 days after he was born up until he was 1yr. Then occasionally have dreams about that. Now is stuff from shows he sees. I don't let him watch anything that Daddy is watching because of that. It was a lot of stuff from the History Channel.

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C.C.

answers from Orlando on

Hi S.,

I can relate to what you are going through. My son is now 4 so I am happy to say that he doesnt go through this anymore. When he was a young toddler he use to have night terrors and it really scared me. I really thought something was wrong. I mean, how could a child have such bad scary thoughts at such a young age? What could be going through their little mind?

I asked his doctor about this several times. He always had the same response. Children at this age, especially boys for some reason, go through this quite often. There is really nothing that you can do except reassure your child that they are safe and give them lots of kisses and hugs. I know it is a hard thing to go through because you never want to see your child in any kind of distress! It is really hard but they do grow out of it.

The other thing that I will say is try not to take him out of his bed. I know that is easier said than done! lol If you get him use to you taking him out of his bed and holding him for extended periods of time at night, that is something he will get use to. He will start to think that every time he whines or crys he is going to get picked up and taken out of bed and talked to. As time passes and he gets older, you will have a really hard time getting him to go to bed and stay in bed. I made this mistake with my son and now I struggle to get him to stay in bed. He thinks if he whines or crys he can get out of bed.

Good luck at the doctors and I hope everything works out for you and your son.

C. Casciorizzo
www.weehands.com/weehands_with_christina.htm
[email protected]____.com
####-###-####

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S.M.

answers from Jacksonville on

Your situation could have been written by me except I have a 13 month old baby girl. She does exactly the same thing. I'm not too worried about it yet and I have no solution for you either. I just wanted to let you know that you aren't alone. I hope all gets better for you.

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D.B.

answers from Fort Walton Beach on

First off, let me say that my heart goes out to you. My daughter (who is now 6) started with night terrors when she was 2. It is the most helpless feeling I have ever felt. I took her to her pediatrician and had a specialist look at her as well. she was suffering from NT about 3-4 times a week. They told me that it was odd, that normally children don't start with them until they are about 4 and usually grow out of them by 7. Not very comforting since my child was only 2. However I did some research online to find that it was a little more common for children her age, aside from the fact that all the information I found said that it should only be happening 2-3 times a month not 2-3 times a week. Her dr and the specialist decided to write her a prescription for valleum. Something I was absolutely not willing to give my two year old. So I bought a lazy boy recliner, and during her episodes I would attempt to just hold her, if she was flailing and hitting I would lay her on her bed and just watch to make sure that she didn't get hurt. Hopefully they can find out the underlying cause for your child. Keep asking questions, night terrors were so rare when my daughter had them, it was really just coming to the public eye. So I had to do the wait it out thing. She did grow out of them, she doesn't ever remember having them. still sometimes she talks in her sleep or whines and tends to kick the wall often, but her new dr said that is no cause for concern especially since I talk in my sleep. I am sorry I couldn't be more helpful. I do know that you are in no way supposed to attempt to wake them. You can hold them and talk to them softly but do not acutally attempt to wake them. hopefully when you go to the dr they will have something better than drugs or waiting it out. but if not, rest assured that it does end. It is really hard, but they don't remember it. It doesn't hurt them, and really it doesn't seem as though it ever actually scared my daughter in her waking hours. a couple routes I took for more information is to actually search night terrors online as well as childrens sleep disorders. there is a lot of information about it. On the pleasant side of what I had to go through I am not going to school to be a psychiatrist with a specialization in dreams and sleep disorders, just haven't gotten far enough to be able to really get into this. Hopefully your visit to the dr will open some doors for you, and help your family cope or cure the problem. best of luck to you!

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M.H.

answers from Gainesville on

Here's what I know about night terrors: It is a sleep disorder related to sleep walking, and is actually pretty rare. Your child is not awake during a night terror. With night terrors, the child will be unresponsive to your comfort attempts, but will likely go back to sleep on his own when the fit is over, and will not remember the incident. If your baby is responsive to you (like taking a sip of water when offered) then he is awake and the cause of his distress is more likely a bad dream or separation anxiety, than an actual night terror.

Here's what I know about 17 month olds: For some reason it seems like that is the age when even good sleepers suddenly begin waking during the night. It happened to me with both my boys, and other moms have posted the same issues. It can be scary for mom and dad because by this age, they really know how to use those lungs, and their screaming can be very distressing.

You say he has always had sleep issues. Has your pediatrician recommended, or have you tried sleep training? I did not know about sleep training when my oldest suddenly began waking with screaming fits during the night around 17 months old. I reacted the way you have described, and I did not know it at the time, but I was actually feeding into his sleep difficulties by "over-responding" to the problem, and now he still has sleep issues at three years old.

My younger son had to be sleep trained around six months old becasue he simply would not sleep longer than two hours at night. So, when he began having night fits at around the same age, I used the same techniques, and it worked like a charm. It goes like this: you respond when he cries, so he knows you will come if he needs you. But, when you go in, just check to make sure nothing is wrong (no fever, vomit, tangled blanket, etc.) and as long as he is physically fine, you pat his back, tell him it is time to go back to sleep, say I love you and leave the room. Yes, he will continue to scream, but you need to wait at least five minutes, and if he is still screaming, check him again and do the same thing. If he continues to cry, then continue the process of checking him and leaving the room until he goes back to sleep on his own (increase the amount of time between each check if you can). He needs to know that you will respond to his cries, so he does not feel abandoned, but he also needs to know that you are not going to hang out with him just because he doesn't want to sleep. I know there are moms that do not agree with this method, but this is what worked wonders in getting my son to sleep thorough the night, both at six months old and again at 16 months when he began waking as you described. And he is the happiest toddler I know.

All that being said, if your child is truly suffering from night terrors, there is not a whole lot you can do other than let it pass. Like I said he is not awake and will not remember it, so the best you can do is let him go back to sleep.

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J.J.

answers from Daytona Beach on

Hi S.
My son is 28 mo. and has also had some very tough med. issues. (2 surg. down....and 1 more to go) So I understand that, one of his biggest issues....was sleeping. He has never slept through the night for more then a week. We tried EVERY method their was, but deep down I felt something was not right. Finally after mo.s of talking to the docs....& many apt.s later they sent me to a sleep study in orlando....we then found out he had sleep aptniea/low iron and his ton/adnoids were far too big for him to breathe right. My advise to you ....make a LOT OF NOISE. Don't stop until you find out what is keeping your child up...it's bad for everyone of all ages to miss out on sleep. (Very unhealthy) As far as the night terrors....I was told, that you are to wake the child up...so they know it's not real...and then resettle them.(my son has them for 6-8weeks after ea. surg.) It can make for a long night at times but they say it will become less often if done that way....when I cheated and did not fully wake him up, he was up again much sooner!!! So they (sleep study docs) must know what they are talking about. Good luck....and pls. know you are not alone, somewhere in this world another mother is up too w/their child. God bless, J. j

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T.S.

answers from Panama City on

S.,

Night terrors usually last 20-30 minutes, not seconds. And, there is no way to console them or get them to stop crying. You just have to wait it out and keep them safe.
I would check into the testing, b/c it sounds like it may be something else.

Take Care,
T.

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A.M.

answers from Daytona Beach on

This is common from what I understand. My son went through a period just like you've described in the beginning of your blog. I found in the end that it was seperation anxiety. Most kids go through it. Eventhough they used to wake up in their room and be completely ok, now they wake up terrified. It's unexplainable, but it's common in my large circle of friends and family. It always seems to happy at about 8-11 months old - My son was at his 10th month I think.

Keep reassuring him and rushing in there. He will learn after a while that mommy hasn't left, she's just in the other room and that when he cries you will come to him. Once it 'clicks' he may still wake in the middle of the night (mine will be 3 soon and still does) but he won't be upset - If he's like mine he'll just start calling, "Mommy, come get me. I want to go to Daddy's bed."

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L.W.

answers from Miami on

This use to happen to my daughter. She is 9 now and it stopped years ago when she was still a baby. She would sleep and wake up screaming, her body rigid and scream for no reason. I wuld try to console her and she just screams. I use to hold her and pray over her because as a mom it is hard to stand and hear her cry and not know why she is crying. She eventually goes back to sleep. I would say play some soothing music, I don't know if you are a christian or not but I strongly believe the prayers help and the music.

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A.R.

answers from Miami on

Hello S.,
I have a very encouraging story to share with you. An appointment with a Homeopath and prescribed remedy FIXED our baby's horrible night terrors (aka: confusional arousal). At 8 months, Kira started having those screaming episodes in the middle of the night. Just horrible and getting worse. She'd look right through me as if I wasn't there, and often wasn't comforted when I picked her up. She was usually still asleep (but eyes open at times), and other times she would wake up. She would be screaming multiple times a night and if we'd wake her fully, she wouldn't go back to sleep easily, and then wake again lasting up to 4-5 hours through the night. Exhausting! My pediatrician told me to make an appointment with a good homeopath he recommended, and I'm happy to report that the remedy worked!! It's been about 5 weeks now and no screaming episodes. We had been suffering for months. She's still waking in the night and moaning or crying at times, but nothing like before.

I highly recommend that you and other moms who have a child with night terrors or other similar problems find a good homeopath. I live in Miami Beach and my homeopath's name is Karen and she works out of Dr. Eisenberg's office ###-###-####. It was $250 for the visit, but worth EVERY PENNY. I'm sure you can find a good one in your area.

Best of luck!
A. R.
Certified Nutritionist
www.RockwellNutrition.com

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S.G.

answers from Mobile on

My husband has the same problem. The doctors have told us that he doesn't have a problem, but they don't wake up to a screaming person every night. I have found that it seems to be related to acid reflux as well. If he takes his medicine for the acid reflux before bed, he sleeps much more peacefully. His parents told me that he's done it his entire life. (sleep walking included) I have read that 95% of children outgrow the condition, however, mine is one of those lucky 5% who didn't. :(
We have just learned to adapt to this daily problem. If he persists in yelling for more than a couple of minutes, I will get up and turn the bedroom light on. That normally will wake him up to where he can calm down. He rarely remembers anything. I would be interested in knowing what your doctor says. My husband had a sleep study done a couple of years ago, but they said that he didn't wake up or have any issues that night, so they couldn't positively 'diagnose' him with anything. :( I hope that they're able to help your little guy. It seems that they are more familiar with the childhood condition, rather than the adults who didn't grow out of it.
Good luck.

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M.C.

answers from Daytona Beach on

I don't know if that is young for night terrors or not. (You may want to check with his pediatrician.)

But - if it is night terrors - you have my sympathies. We struggled them with my oldest child until he had his last one when he was 14 years old. He truly frightened me (for MY safety), that time. Thank God is was the last time!

I am told that you can comfort yourself to know that it is not something you are doing "wrong" - and there is nothing wrong with his mental health. My son is 37 yrs old, works regularly at the same job for 18 years, has a wife (wife # 1) and three children. (In other words, his life "works".) But - he is a very sensitive man - and was a very sensitive boy. I wondered if maybe he wasn't actually "worried" about issues in his development. ("Will I get potty trained?" - "Are my mommy and daddy MAD at me when they say "NO" all the time", etc, etc...) I don't know. But - finally - it did resolve itself. It usually ends earlier than 14 (around 9, I think.) Meanwhile, you want to stay on high alert - because as he is able to get out of his bed, he may sleep-walk and you may find him screaming in the garage, or in the kitchen taking dishes out of the cabinets, or in the living room using the sofa cushions as a wedge to knock you down with. (All really happened to us. We laugh now, but gosh, it was NOT fun!) No medications needed. Just loads of patience and prayer. Sense of humor doesn't hurt, but use with caution: your son doesn't need to be laughed at, of course!

Good luck!

V.W.

answers from Jacksonville on

there was a similar discussion a few days ago on this site. Look back at the post on 9/16 (?)

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E.H.

answers from Pittsburgh on

S.,

My daughter who has slept thru the night since she was 4 weeks old. I had doctors tell me my daughter had night terrors when she was about 20 months. She would be standing in her crib screaming for her life. She didn't recognize me even though she was calling my name. It was the one of the scariest and helpless feelings I have felt. But she did finally wake up after about 10-15 minutes and she did recall something. I guess she recalled feeling a sense of panic (that’s what the doctors say). She was afraid to go to sleep and this process repeated several times for a few weeks, then they completely disappeared. She hasn't had a night terror again. Now she still has nightmares which she is yelling about snakes or something scary in a dream. But apparently from what I have read and what the doctor says with night terrors they aren't dreaming but they still may have the feeling of being scared. Most cases they don’t recall a thing. If you are still concerned that it could be night terror ask your pediatrician.

Hope that helps. Beth

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K.W.

answers from Orlando on

I think Mandy H nails this one the head!
My son did the exact same thing around 18 months, and he was always a good sleeper. But he would wake up screaming--and then seem incoherent and inconsolable when we went up there, but then he would calm down and immediately fall back asleep. This went on off and on around 18 months for a few weeks and then occasionally would happen but stopped around 2 years.
My guess is that this is a phase and not actually night terrors. Night terrors is actually a disorder that will start to show in kids 2-6 years old--the episode usually lasts around 20-30 minutes. Here's some info on them http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_terror

Be careful too--at this age they learn that by behaving a certain way, things happen. Like, if I wake and cry long enough--mom will come and give me attention and water. So my advice is to NOT go in there--wait--let him learn to get himself back to sleep--or you will find yourself in there every night, which isn't good for either of you! Keep in mind that separation anxiety is at it's height at this age too!
We all wake up in the night and get ourselves back to sleep, and for many kids this does not happen automatically--they have to learn to self soothe-and there are many ways to do this.
There are two great books I think you should read:
the first is Healthy Sleep Habits Happy Child by Dr. Marc Weissbluth--this is like the end all be all in sleep books--it reads more like a reference book, but will give you great insight on babies/kids and sleep. Many of the other authors out there cite his studies.
The second is The Baby Whisperer Solves All Your Problems: Sleeping, Feeding, and Behavior--Beyond the Basics from Infancy Through Toddlerhood --great info and ways to help you through sleep issues with babies and toddlers, her methods are gentle and honstly really work!

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