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23rd Oct 2015

Dealing With Night Terrors: A Delicate Balance

Sharyn Hayden

If you are dealing with one of your kids having night terrors, I feel your pain. I really do.

My now four-year-old had night terrors for almost two years and for most of that time, we really didn’t know what we were dealing with. When you’re a first-time parent, you have no concept of what is ‘the norm’ when it comes to your new bundle – if you’re like me, you just sort of accept the child that you were given and figure out his uniqueness as you go. For us, Jacob’s ‘uniqueness’ was that at 11pm every night, come hell or high water, he started to scream in his bed and didn’t stop again for about an hour.

Night terrors are thought to affect about 15 per cent of toddlers and pre-school children in Ireland. So what are they?

1. A night terror is not the same as a nightmare, where a child would be able to recount the scary dream they had, and recognise their parent in their room. 90 per cent of the child’s brain is still asleep but the primary motor cortex (or the part of the brain that controls movement and speech) is active. This explains why your child is shouting and moving about, but won’t remember a thing about it the next day.

2. Although recognised as a very real thing, the reason behind why some kids experience night terrors and others don’t, is kind of vague. It can be linked to over-tiredness, diet, a physical or emotional trauma or an upheaval in the child’s life. In our case, we had moved house three times in three years and Jacob’s over-tiredness, plus his refusal to drink milk, were all factors in hindsight.

3. The terror will start somewhere within the first third of their nightly sleep, or 1-3 hours after you put them to bed. So if we put Jacob to bed at 7pm, the night terror would begin between 10pm and midnight.

4. Your child will scream, cry, lash out and generally behave as though they are ‘possessed’. He or she will sit up in bed and look as though they are awake, but they really aren’t. It’s a really unnerving experience for parents.

5. Either parent might be a trigger for more screaming if they feature somehow as part of the terror. Often times, kids think they can see ‘monsters’ as part of what they are experiencing. Attempting to speak to the child at all can also result in more roaring; so be warned that the situation is very delicate. I eventually just took to sitting quietly on the floor in Jacob’s bedroom until it passed.

6. A terror can last anywhere from ten minutes to an hour. If you have neighbours, try to explain to them what is going on or fear, as we did, that someone will call child services. Night terror screams are LOUD.

What can you do to prevent night terrors?

Unfortunately, there is no real ‘cure’. I can tell you that a combination of things worked for us in the end; we finally moved into our ‘forever home’ so he finally settled into his own room and permanent surroundings; he started to drink a cup of milk again at night time; I blended a half a camomile tablet into that milk to calm him; he tightened up our nap and bed time routine and finally – and I sort of hate to say this because it’s not helpful to anyone but – I kind of think he just grew out of it in the end.

The lightbulb moment for us was when we realised that there wasn’t something particularly wrong with him and that what we were dealing with had an actual title; he had night terrors. has a list of helpful guidelines if night terrors do occur, which are as follows:

  • Do not try to wake the child. It is not dangerous to do so but it may considerably prolong the agony for both parent and child.
  • Although the natural instinct will be to hold the child in an effort to soothe it, this is best avoided if possible. The subjective experience of a child in a night terror is one of being trapped or caged, so grabbing hold of them may make them struggle all the more.
  • Try to ignore any verbal abuse from the child. During a night terror the child is not fully awake and conscious and is therefore not aware of their actions.
  • Protect the child from injury by standing against sharp edges on furniture and standing between the child and any windows in the room.
  • In very exceptional cases where night terrors are happening on a very regular basis, (or more particularly in the case of adolescents who experience what are termed as true night terrors) medication, hypnotherapy or other forms of relaxation exercises may be recommended.

If you have any parenting tips on handling night terrors, get in touch at