Is My 3-Year-old Having "Night Terrors?"

Updated on September 01, 2009
L.T. asks from Oklahoma City, OK
10 answers

My younger son, age 3 (37 months), has never been a "good" sleeper. More and more often recently he wakes screaming. He appears to be dreaming because most times he's yelling for someone to stop bothering him in some way. (For example, he yells at his older brother, "Stop splashing me!" after earlier that day they played outside in the pool.) I try to wake him but am unable to when I initially go to him. After he does wake up - eyes open...seems alert - he doesn't usually understand what's going on. We've tried just leaving him alone but that usually results in him getting VERY worked up - screaming, shaking, etc - but still asleep. I've read a little bit about night terrors but based on what little I’ve read, his symptoms don't completely line up. His "episodes" don't usually happen until he's been asleep for a few hours unlike what I've read about night terrors where people generally wake within the first hour. However, some things do line up - he's often sweaty, much shaken, and seemingly unaware that he's dreaming. It is happening more and more frequently (several times EVERY night). My husband and I are at a loss as to how to help prevent this from happening every night. It's beginning to affect how my son acts the next day. Because he is tired from a long night of much interrupted sleep, he's very cranky during the day. Does anyone have any insight on this subject?

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answers from Tulsa on

My nephew suffered terribly from night terrors when he was younger. Unfortunately, the doctors told my brother and sister-in-law that he would have to outgrow them, as there was no treatment. He continued with the night terrors for a little over a year, but they finally stopped. It was really rough for them, but they finally made it through.

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answers from Biloxi on

does not sound like night terrors to sounds more like bad dreams...i don't want to say nightmares because he is just acting out things on his mind that happened throughout the day. I just think he has bad dreams and talks in his sleep.



answers from Birmingham on

Hi L.,
I know how you feel. My son had night terrors too. He also was usually asleep for several hours before they ocurred. More than likely, he is waking and falling back to sleep on his own then having a night terror. My sons eyes would be open wide with huge pupils and screaming uncontrollably. He would be looking in our directiona and not see us. He still occasionally has them, usually at school. I have researched and found that night terrors occur sometimes after the person has had a large meal. I have found that to be true with my son as he has them now at daycare. They take their naps right after lunch. Myself and the teachers at daycare never wake him. You are never supposed to wake them. Just protect them from their surroundings and keep them from falling out of bed. If it is happening several times a night then I would most definitely call your pediatrician and see if they can refer him to a sleep clinic for a sleep study. I hope some of this helps!! Good luck and God bless! I hope you all get some rest soon!



answers from Montgomery on

The same thing happened to my son at around the same age and happened later on in the night too.
The things that worked best for us is to dress him in the lightest clothes possible. Sometime my son just had on a diaper. We also used a cool wash rag to wipe on the bottom of his feet and his head. We would hold him until he either went back to sleep or he woke up fully.
What I have been told is that their body gets to hot and can not cool itself off so they fall into a deeper sleep then usual... (Don't know if that is true) but the cool rag and no clothes really helped us. it can be really scary when you can't communicate with your child....

Hope that helps! Good luck.



answers from Fayetteville on

I wanted to let you know you are not alone, and I am sorry you have to endure the night terrors. My son had them when he was that age, I know what you are going through. I took him to the Dr. for it and he just told me he would out grow them. My son did out grow them, so maybe they won't last too long. Sorry I don't have a magic spell to share with you, but it won't last forever. I did try soothing music and lots of hugs to console him. God bless you.



answers from Tulsa on


This isn't advice so much as it is empathy. Our 3.5-y.o. wakes up many nights with what I can only describe as the "creepy-crawlies". He trashes around in bed scratching at his legs, kicking and writhing. If you ask him what's wrong you just get a stream of gibberish. The next morning he has no memory of what caused his so much discomfort.



answers from Fayetteville on


As for answers, the entire human race have been seearching for specifics for thousands of years:) However, I offer a suggestion. Sleep next to him one night or two. Observe if he has the same experience in contrast. If the behavior is still the same then experiemnt more. Before bedtime give him a massage, work the enviroment with music. Create a loving enviroment with peaceful additions. Think out of the box here. Also, record his behavior each night in a notebook. You have a question "is my son haveing night terror?" Every single scientist has a question. They conduct experiemnts to figure out the answer. They collect data/information over a period of time. They observe. If this keeps happening you can take him to the ER or Doctor/ specialist and have them conduct tests with high technical equitpment, however, you can do one thing they won't do...explore your imagination and create various ways to express love to him right before bedtime. Search infant/child massage and it's's one way of expressing love. This is why I am suggesting this because in 1 corinthians 13 or so it says "Love never fails". Also, pray...before goes to bed and when he's asleep.

And I wish to say I do not have the answers, however, I would rather try than not.

The power of prayer is within you:)



answers from New Orleans on

You're right, it sounds a lot like nightmares. When you try to wake him up, does he respond? calm down?
My son got night terrors at that age. Not often, and usually after a very high energy day (birthday parties, staying up late, etc.)
He would sit up in bed and cry over something that only he could see. But, we couldn't wake him up or touch him. If we touched him, it would just freak him out and he would get worse. And he never remembered it in the morning.
I've heard that one main difference is that they will remember a nightmare - but not night terrors.

You may already be doing this, but my suggestion would be to make sure he is getting enough sleep every night. (Besides the nightmare part) Regular bedtime, with bath and books to calm him down before sleep. It helped with my son's night terrors. Good luck!



answers from Baton Rouge on

Hey L.,

Like you said, it sounds hard to tell. You can do what you have been doing and what is recommended for night terrors and just leave him be. Or you can try another approach. My little one went through something similar at 2yrs old, and thankful has stopped 6 months later. Anyway, I just pulled her snuggly against me in the bed, ore held her shoulder, while i whispered in her ear "It's okay, mommy's got you." a few times and then I would whisper "go back to sleep." It worked well for her and her waking mood improved as she was getting uninterupted sleep and did not recall the disturbances. I on the other had was exhausted, but currently you are being awakened too. All I can say is I did this for a few months, she slept better, finally it stopped and now we all are sleeping better.

Best Wishes,



answers from Pine Bluff on

Our 21 month old grandaughter went through a few nights of this and her parents spoke to the peditrician. The thought was as you suspect, night terrors. The advice they got was to gently begin to wake her up after she had been asleep for an hour or so to interrupt the sleep pattern. It has to do with which level of sleep they are in and you are correct the sleeper has no clue what he/she has been doing. You do not even have to wake him completely, just disturb the sleep pattern. Our son-in-law did it by rubbing the grand's back and talking gently to her until she began to wake up then he would stop and she settled down again. As a grandmom I might mention to the talk older son that splashing his younger brother may not be as much fun as it seems. Possibly it does bother the younger one and he does not know what to do about it in the day time when he is awake but it surfaces at night in his sleep pattern. The older boy is not to blame for this, he does not know as much about any of it as you do. Read, read, read everything you can on this and maybe speak to his peditrician. Mamasource had some info on this several weeks ago. I will try to find it and get back to you. It does not seem to last over a long period of time in their lives but as you said it does take its toll on daily alertness. Has there been a change in your lifestyle or his daily routine lately. That may have something to do with it but I do not know. God bless and enjoy your boys, they grow up so fast.

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