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Night Terrors: How To Make Them Stop

Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson


Has this ever happened at your house?

Your child sits bolt upright in bed, eyes open in the dark, screaming and yelling at the top of his lungs. You shake him gently but he continues to holler. He flaps his arms and trembles, seemingly terrified, but he won’t stop and he won’t say what’s wrong.

After at least 10 minutes of this (what must the neighbors be thinking?) he subsides and allows himself to be tucked back in. Trembling yourself now, you go back to bed. The same thing has happened every night this week.

This is a night terror. It’s not the same as a bad dream.

A dream happens during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, when a child can be awakened. This is the problem with bad dreams, after all, that they wake a child up. But a night terror occurs in the deepest levels of sleep when it’s nearly impossible to awaken a child. This is why you can’t get him to stop.

And it gets worse: night terrors recur. They often happen night after night after night.

Night terrors are most common in preschool children. They may be related to some anxious situation that happened during the day, including a major family disruption. One way to make night terrors stop is to figure out what is upsetting the child and fix that situation if you can.

Another way is to intercept the night terror before it starts. Because these episodes usually happen at about the same time each evening, you can often head them off by waking the child up just before a “scheduled” event. Rouse her just enough to bring her from fully asleep to drowsy (though you can wake her up enough to get a sip of water or go to the bathroom if you like). Breaking the cycle often works.

Children outgrow night terrors but before they do night terrors can strike real fear into a sleepy parent’s heart. Understanding what these episodes are and how to handle them makes everyone sleep better!

© 2012, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved.

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Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

Dr. Patricia Anderson is a nationally acclaimed educational psychologist and the author of “Parenting: A Field Guide.” Dr. Anderson is on the Early Childhood faculty at Walden University and she is a Contributing Editor for Advantage4Parents.