Is your child waking up screaming?

When my son was a toddler he used to have these things called night terrors. Essentially, he was still asleep but would start screaming, failing and kicking in his bed. It was terrifying to say the least. And, while he would fall back to sleep after a few minutes, I would lay awake concerned for hours.

Was he having a bad dream? Was he awake or asleep? And why in the world did this keep happening?

Many children will experience disrupted sleep due to nightmares and night terrors. Nightmares are frightening dreams that wake children up and leave them feeling scared.

Night terrors are different to this and are much less common. They do not happen during dreams and children have no recollection of the night terror when they wake up. They usually happen around the same time each night (most often around 1 to 2 hours after the child has fallen asleep) and can happen for several nights in a row before stopping and maybe re-starting weeks or months later.

During the night terror they remain asleep or are only partially awake. Children can appear very distressed during a night terror, often screaming with a fast heartbeat and a fearful look.  It is unclear what causes night terrors but they may run in families and they may be more frequent during times of illness, stress or poor sleep patterns.

When our son was having a night terror we would try to wake him and then ask him several questions about the situation the next day at breakfast to try and get to the bottom of it. However, experts suggest this is not what you should do. Instead, do this:

  • Don’t try to wake your child up. Provide comfort and use a soothing voice.
  • Don’t talk to your child about it the next day as they won’t remember the night terror.
  • Think about what has been happening in his/her life and whether there is anything stressful that could be changed.
  • Try a ‘planned waking’ approach: because the terrors occur at around the same time each night, gently wake your child about 15 minutes prior to that time. You might just give your child a cuddle, or get them a drink of water or take them to the toilet. The waking only needs to be very brief. The idea is that this waking will break the usual sleep cycle and may stop the night terror from occurring.
  • If the night terrors persist it may be a good idea to talk to your doctor for further advice.

My son is six now and hasn’t had one of these experiences in several months. I cannot tell you if the reason he was having them was due to poor sleeping habits, stress or something else. All I know is that they have stopped.

So, parents who do have children who suffer from night terrors, the good news is that they will subside.


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