Night Terrors

I’m covering this one separately because it’s not really related to the whole attachment spectrum of sleep issues, but I see enough parents dealing with Night Terrors that I think we all need to be aware of what a night terror is, and how it is different from nightmares.

Night terrors are scary, and as counter-intuitive as it sounds, it’s best to not wake the child up. Children do not usually remember night terrors, apparently they don’t happen in the part of the brain that talks to the waking part of the brain. If you wake them up, they remember the feeling of being so scared, if you don’t wake them, they won’t remember anything the next day.

I’ve seen a lot of descriptions of night terrors, all of them involve screaming (often described as a blood curdling scream), rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, often their eyes are wide open with a look of panic or intense fear. But the experts tell us, and my own experiences with this tell me, that the child is not really awake. TwinkleToes has had about 6 of these, not enough that it’s a regular thing, and for that I am very grateful.

I’ve heard of them lasting a long time, 15 or 20 minutes. TT’s have only lasted a minute or two. I woke her up for the first one, but once I read up on it I haven’t awakened her for the others, I just pick her up and hold her and quietly console her, then put her back to bed when it’s over. She holds onto me, and her eyes are open, but she’s not really awake.

The statistics say that about 15% of children have night terrors. I don’t know if post-institutionalized children are also at 15% or not. We have a lot of people talking about it, but I have no idea what percentage we may be at.

There are a list of things thought to bring them on – being overtired, stress, unresolved conflict, seeing or hearing violence (real or TV), fever, even constipation gets blamed. For children who have night terrors almost every night, some parents report that if they wake their child up thirty minutes to an hour before the terror usually happens it seems to interrupt the sleep cycle and keep it from happening.

In our case, I think that TT’s night terrors are directly related to her sensory issues. Hers happened back when we were having multiple fits during the day, and I hadn’t yet figured out that the fits were sensory related. Once we started making sure she was getting enough sensory input, the night terrors stopped as well. It’s possible the night terrors had more to do with what her body went through while pitching a fit than the actual sensory stuff, but once we got the sensory stuff figured out, everything else smoothed out as well.

If you’d like to do more reading about this subject:
Wikipedia – Pediatrics


Note from RQ: The section below is for comments from's community of registered readers. Please don't assume that I agree with any particular comment just because I let it stand. Posts are generally only removed if they don't follow the rules of the site. Anyone who fails to comply with the rules of the site may lose his or her posting privilege.

23 Responses to “Night Terrors”

  1. theracpac Says:

    My daughter had night terrors frequently the first year home and they only lasted a few minutes each. (She was 6 at adoption) Thankfully they have lessened over time.

    It was so scary to hear her scream and the look on her face was nothing short of eyes wide open terror. The thing I had to deal with was keeping her safe from injury. She would bang her head against the wall and hit herself while screaming NO and STOP. It was heart wrenching to witness and it was always a task to prevent injury while not waking her up. I would place pillows between her and the wall and tried to gently keep her from hitting herself in the face.

    I also hoped that she was not remembering something from her past. She has never given me anything to suspect abuse and has very fond memories of China. But leaving everything you have ever known at the age of 6 can be terrifying so I think most of her terrors came from the greiving and stress of adjustment and all the changes.

    One thing that my husband commented on was that she was screaming in English (while asleep)…and she had been home only a few weeks.

    I slept in her room for months while keeping a log to try and figure out the timing of her terrors. I would wake her when I thought it was getting close to the time of her terror and walk her around the house to familiarize her with her surroundings while comforting her. It seemed to help but sometimes her terrors would not come on “schedule”.

    I could not pick her up or try to comfort her because she would start hitting me, so I just stayed by her side, watched, and prevented injury. I felt helpless.

    Her terrors became less frequent and now has one occasionally that is not violent and lasts only seconds.

  2. catherinethegreat Says:

    My youngest DD had night terrors repeatedly for weeks on end for the first few months at home. She screamed, was inconsolable and was like a wild animal. All we could really do was make sure the crib had lots of insulation so she wouldn’t hit her head against the bars. And we did this all the way to the top of the crib because she would stand in the crib and bang her head against the wall. It was horrifiying. I nearly had half my face ripped off the first night and DH sported a black eye for awhile. The night terror often occured more than once per night (at least for the first few weeks). It was the worst thing that we had ever seen and I will never forget it. We had to go to the pediatrician so we could get some medication to help her at least get into a deeper sleep at night to take the edge off of these. My pediatrician felt that it was too dangerous for my daughter to let the night terrors continue without some use of medications. The meds just took the edge off of her sleep deprivation and it allowed her to get into a deeper sleeping pattern for about 3 to 4 hours per night. We only used it for a week. The night terrors still happenned so I know the use of mild sedatives/antianxiety meds isn’t the full answer..but it did take the edge off the number and severity of the episodes. Unfortunately, my daughter continued to experience these episodes nightly for another few weeks…but over time they spread out, although they were still occuring up to a year post adoption. Two and a half years later, you would never know that she had any sleeping issues..she sleeps peacefull all night; albeit in my room (in her own bed). So long as she can see me in the room; she is okay…

  3. Donna T Says:

    All three of my kids have had night terrors. My bio son did it pretty often and we could always link the instances back to one thing: being overly tired.

    My daughters have done it also but only when getting through jet lag issues. They wake up but they’re insanely tired and unreasonable and just scream and thrash around and can’t be touched or consoled at all. Finally we get them all the way awake and can comfort them and put them back to sleep.

    I feel for any family who has to deal with this more often than just a couple of times per year. It’s HARD to watch because you feel so helpless. Personally, I don’t think it has anything specific to do with being “terrified”. I think it’s more like a huge emotional meltdown brought on by a fractured sleep cycle. But I expect that other parents have noticed a different pattern with their own kids.

    Fortunately, I hear kids outgrow this.

    Our Blog: Double Happiness!

  4. jenele Says:

    Our five year old had one on the plane trip to China. The flight attendant woke her up about 30- 60 miniutes after she finally fell asleep to put on her seat buckle. Well none of us were wearing our seat buckle after that. It pretty much looked like our daughter was loosing her mind. I cant imagine what some people on that plane were thinking…
    DD has had about 10-15 night terrors in her lifetime so it was not a new thing…it was a new thing to have to deal with it in public. It lasted 20 miniutes that seemed like hours. That said she has snapped out of a few night terrors after I stuck a cold popsicle in her mouth. I wish I had one on the plane…

  5. sarah123 Says:

    That’s so funny because the only way to stop DD’s night terrors is to give her an ice pop. I don’t know why, and it can’t be in her room or our room. We have to take her downstairs, sit her on the counter and give her the ice pop. She recovers immediately and usually doesn’t even eat the pop, just a few licks and she’s back to bed happy as a lamb. She has night terrors so infrequently now that it always catches us off guard and we are positive her appendix is about to rupture or something. The screaming is so unbelievable. After a few minutes of not being able to console her or have her answer us it finally clicks that she’s having a night terror and not a major medical emergency. :-D

  6. DCmomtobe Says:

    We’ve been home about 5 weeks and my DD has had several of these. They are really not linked to overstimulation during the day from what I can tell – the days she has had them have certainly been as low-key as any other, and on days when I fear she might have been overstimulated she hasn’t had them. The only thing that sometimes works is to put something soft in her hands. It’s like she can’t see or hear me try to calm her, but for some reason the softness in her hands sometimes calms her down. Other times she just tosses whatever it is away (security blanket, small stuffed animal) and keeps going. They go on for about 20 minutes. They’re AWFUL.

  7. dlrs Says:

    Our biological daughter had such horrible terrors right as we were moving. During this time we stayed with my parents while waiting to move and went on a vacation. This change in schedule and bedtime routine truly set her night terrors into motion. Kicking, screaming, hitting…..if we touched her it made matters 10x’s worse so we just sat and talked to her soothingly to calm her as much as possible. Eventually, we would hear a heavy sigh and then we knew she was ok. Hers usually lasted 20 minutes but seemed so much longer.

    BTW, night terrors are not fun to deal with when staying at a hotel or staying with family. Woke everyone!

  8. bahk Says:

    We don’t have our baby yet, but thought I would chime in with my experience. I am adult who has night terrors. I had them as a child and outgrew them, but redeveloped them as an adult after college. I can tell you that they scare the you know what out of DH, but I can go right back to sleep with no problem. I can also tell you that mine are always about 1 thing. I have a fear of spiders and my night terror are always about spiders and they are in techno-color and 3D. I get up run around and scream and yell. They typically come when I am exhausted and I do hit people. The worst one was in a hotel room and I am sure everyone thought I was being killed. I do remember them the next morning, but as I said I have no trouble falling back asleep once I have come out of it and I can tell you that I have no memory of having them as child, but my mother will tell you that they were awful.

  9. lmgnyc Says:

    My DD had night terrors starting while we were still in China. She also had breath holding spells and is, in general, a pretty spirited child. Her night terrors always started around 1am and would happen every half hour or so until about 4 am. She was inconsolable. I could not touch her, she would hit me, she didn’t want to be held, cuddled or touched. She would scream, cry and flail about. It was frightening. This went on for months and months. The only thing I can think of to explain what was going through her mind is that she was, just as the name suggests, terrified. The transition was, for her, such a terrifying thing. During the day time she was stonily silent. She was passive and quiet. But at night she was shrieking and crying. One way or another it has to come out.

    Lucky for us, this was five years ago and she is a more secure child at this point. We still have our issues but night terrors isn’t one of them. Thankfully.

  10. amykrisb Says:

    We have kind of an interesting issue–our 5-year-old daughter has something similar to a night terror while waking up from nap, usually if she doesn’t get enough sleep and has woken up too early. This happens a lot when she falls asleep in the car; she’ll never stay asleep long enough for a full nap, and sometimes at home. What’s puzzling is that it has never happened at school, and she often doesn’t get her full 2 hours there.
    A few times she has calmed down when we put her in front of a video, but there’s usually nothing we can do but wait it out most days (20 or 30 minutes). It also happened on the plane back from China to adopt her brother (she was 5) but her days and nights were kind of messed up then. It was a night flight and if she’d wake up, she’d scream and kick, etc.

    Except for the plane (and she may have felt like that was a nap) it’s NEVER happened at night. Only during daytime naps. ??? She does remember them when she is over them, but has no explanation for what just happened.

  11. Norahs_dad Says:

    Our daughter had night terrors from day one when we got her in China at almost four years old. We definitely think it was from the traumatic situation of being taken from her foster family that she had lived with for six months and the extra stress that adoption can put on a child, especially a child who is deaf with no language. Just like everyone had said, she was the maddest I had ever seen a child get. Some times eyes closed sometimes eyes wide open with no one home. You couldn’t even touch her to try to hold her because that would that just make things worse. Luckily we knew not to awaken her because someone who had adopted before us went throw it had given us that advice and I had read it before we went to China. We would let her ride it out usually about ten minuets or so then she would calm down and do one of two things. Go back to sleep, or snap out of it and start crying tears or sorrow and want to be held. These happened every night for the first couple of weeks then go less and less as the weeks past. To where she would have them about once a week for the first six months we were home. Then nothing they stopped at the six months home mark. I want to be clear on this too Norah is the hippest kids I have ever seen. Even in China she would have moments of where the reality that her would was yet again changing and be grieving her loss and we would encourage it because we seen it as good natural thing, then it seemed she would get up brush herself off and be ready for then next new adventure extremely happy child the rest of the day. She has her normal, I’m a five year old moments, but seems to spreads her happiness and joy for life every where she goes.

  12. cellule Says:

    Our DD also had NT, starting in China. In fact, we did what we were not supposed to do (even if we knew about NT before we’ve adopted), so the NT last for months. Every 30 to 40 minutes… 4 or 5 times a night… and each night. We then consulted a specialist, and the night after we started to do what we actually had to do (which is… do NOTHING mostly), it stopped. Like that. Since then (almost 3 years), we’ve had about 15 nights like that. Usually, after a “rough day” for our DD (like the first day at kindergarden). My best advice: consult!

  13. littleperson647 Says:

    Our bio son had night terrors for years. They were so terrible. It broke my heart to watch how he would cry, scream and try to leave the house. He would just start yelling for me and scream Mom, Mom and cry so frantic that we did not know what to do. He would carry on for anywhere from 20 minutes to 2-3 hours a night. But not every night. They lasted for about 6 years or more…

    We started keeping track of them and at the end of the month we would see when and what had happened each time he had a terror.

    Not being able to wake him up, we terrible.. We would just talk to him and calm him down as much as we could. Never wake a person in a night terror. Thats what the specialist told us. Which we never did. The specialist told us that waking a person in night terrors could cause them to have to have a heart attach.. Sounds crazy but scared us enough to never wake hime up.

    They seemed to lessen as years went on. He finally stopped screaming and would just run around looking for him little brother. He would walk by us and I would say where are you going? He would say Looking for brother.. We would just talk to him and turn him around and send him back to bed.

    They have now stopped and he has not had any in the last few years, but at times does still sleep walk with no screaming, just looking for someone or something.

    All will wook out and they will go away. Thats what i always believed..

  14. BeiLeesmom Says:

    Our DS has them (adopted at 2, they started at at 3 1/2) and if we don’t wake him up he will have them throughout the night. When he has the first one, we get him up, soothe him, then take him to the darkened bathroom and have him potty. That breaks the cycle enough for him to go back to sleep without another NT. And since they tend to come in weeklong spurts, then we usually give him aspirin before bedtime to help him sleep deeper for the next week.
    I have had NTs all my life, and I don’t ever remember being woken up out of a NT, although my partner usually wakes me before I terrify my son with my screaming.

  15. jksweber Says:

    We struggled with night terrors with two children. Our second daughter would scream, flail, and wretch for at least 20 minutes with a horrifying blank stare. After many nights for many months someone told us, “If you can change their environment the terror ends. ” This is consistent with the idea of the popsicle or taking them to the potty. We chose to take her outside. She didn’t seem to fully wake up but she calmed immediately.
    Thankfully she never seemed to remember it in the morning.

  16. kalohr Says:

    Our DD came home at 8 months of age and is now 3.5 years. She has always been a great sleeper but we’ve experienced three night terrors since coming home. She was in foster care for about 4 months prior to Gotcha Day and we were never told of any issues. She was still an infant so crying at night was usual at that age. We were aware of night terrors but nevertheless, we were surprised and frightened by the first one especially. We can’t seem to put a finger on what might trigger them. They are very infrequent (average one per year) but it sure is scary to watch. DD had one last weekend and DH ran into her room to find her screaming and thrashing around. I’m not sure how I slept through it but I did! This was DH’s first real experience with them…I think it scared him to death. He told me about it the next day and just look horrified. I had the pleasure of experiencing the first two. Being a sleep walker and talker myself, I’d been told a great deal about what to expect from someone who might do this. I handled it much better than DH did (apparently). DH did know not to wake her up but just spoke soothingly to her. The each lasted 5-10 minutes. And DD never remembers them in the morning–such a relief for us and for her. We are also thankful that they seem to be infrequent.

  17. kittymama Says:

    I’ve said this numerous times on the forum, too, but I think it bears repeating as it may help other parents. We *thought* DD was having night terrors but it turned out to be gas pains from lactose intolerance. The day we stopped feeding her any dairy at night, her screams at night stopped. I know others have reported the same. DD didn’t show any signs of the intolerance during the day – it was only at night that the pain would bother her.

  18. lojeslj Says:

    Two of my bio dd’s had night terrors that would end abruptly if you set them on the potty to let them pee. Learned this gem thru my cousin who had the same situation with his dd. It was like magic.

    Adopted ds had a different version of night terrors that was a combination of grief and anger. He did it at least once a night for 9 months. The only thing that worked was re-directing his brain with some sort of sensory input. A cold wet finger in his ear often would startle him just enough that the screaming would slow and stop and he’d drift back into a better sleep. It didn’t wake him, but just broke thru whatever intense brain activity was going on.

    It broke my heart, poor guy.

  19. lovemygirls Says:

    My daughter (adopted at 9 months) had her first night terror in China and had them nightly for the first several months after we arrived home. She would wake, screaming and crying, 45-60 minutes after falling asleep, every night. The NT eventually became less frequent and then stopped altogether until she was 3.5 and she started to have some attachment issues. At that point, she seemed more angry during the night terrors. We consulted an attachment therapist and the night terrors diminished. They definitely are a barometer of how she is doing, attachment-wise, and will recur when she’s sick or stressed.

  20. ratgirl Says:

    My bio son had constant night terrors when he was 3 or so. He had endured a lot of painful medical treatment and hospitalizations, and at the time, was in treatment for PTSD. So we assumed the night terrors were related. He would sound like he was reliving a lot of painful experiences, and would yell at some unknown person to stop doing things to him. He was always completely asleep, and impossible to waken. This went on for about a year and finally disappeared.

  21. kimreed1991 Says:

    We adopted our dd in 2003 at 9 mo. She didn’t have NT right away. They started at about 1 YO and have continued until now. She is 7YO. I have read that overtiredness and stress can bring it out. It is also related to epileptic seizures even though it doesn’t damage the brain. It is also related to sleep walking and sleep talking of which she does plenty. The thing to do is keep them cool (which we do and no footie pjs) and no late nights (which we rarely do). We have found a solution: Children’s Reliv. It is a powder drink mix with LOTS of vitamins and other nutrients. It was a tremendous relief to find this. Just look for your local dist. My daughter’s NT escalated when she was 4 YO and was having them 3-4 times/week and up to 45 minutes at a time. None of our friends and family believed what we went through so we videotaped one. It was awful. She was screaming about witches touching her legs and thrashing about violently. We couldn’t touch her or comfort her. We could only make sure she didn’t hurt herself. Finally, she would settle down. She was asleep the whole time with her eyes wide open and didn’t remember a thing the next morning. Last year, I took her off the Children’s Reliv and she started the NTs all over again with up to 2/ week. So, she is on it again and we will try again later this year. I’ve read that they grow out of this by the time they are 5 YO. It hasn’t happened in her case. We keep praying.

  22. Robin Says:

    My dd had night terrors that lasted up to 40 minutes per. She’s 5 1/2 now and has had them since she came home at 12 mos. The pediatricial told us that night terrors are genetic, and not brought on by environment. There are things that can bring them on, like over-tiredness, etc- but I was surprised to find out that she got them through genetics, and nothing else.

  23. Robin Says:

    that should have said pediatrician, not pediatricial! lol!