Another Toddler Sleep Problem: Night Terrors – Can You Help?

In response to the Coping with Toddler Sleep Issues post from yesterday, Lorri contacted me, looking for help from parents who have issues with night terrors in young children. As this is not something we have had to deal with just yet, I am turning it over to you – the wonderful, experienced mothers (and fathers) who read Childhood 101. This is what Lorri had to say…

Our daughter is now 3.5 years old and has had night terrors since she was 18 months. It took us a while to work out what was going on. She’d appear to “wake” but had her eyes mostly closed, would scream and roar, throw her arms or legs around and get more agitated when touched.

At first, we tried to wake her or distract her with the cold night air, bringing her to see our dog, anything out of the ordinary to wake her from her terrors. Come the morning, she wouldn’t remember them at all. They happened mostly when she was over stimulated by her energetic grandmother or coming down with a cold. As we co-sleep, she moves from her cot to our bed through the night. I am also sure that she occasionally wakes because of our snoring or stirring.

These days, when she wakes, we try to keep her calm and talk to her. Sometimes she’d run down the corridor, we’d follow her to keep her safe and keep her company, talk to her, sometimes changing our tone completely so she’d break the state…something like “OHHHHHH, EMMMAA, our little baby,…what’s going on? OOOHHHHH come here let me hold you like a baby…..” (or something to that effect). She’d come running, get a cuddle, some milk (yes, we still have bottles or milk) and eventually calm down and fall asleep.

We are a close family, we practice attachment, co-sleep with our girls in our room and conscious parenting. I am a SAHM and do not leave her with anyone, so I know what her days and experiences are like.

I guess I’m interested to know the experiences of other parents with night terrors. What they did to help their child through an incident, their child’s triggers and at what age they subsided?

Do you have experience with night terrors? Can you help? Please leave a comment below if you have any suggestions for Lorri.

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  1. My four year old has night terrors when overtired. I have found it best to try to "enter" the dream and talk her through whatever she is dreaming about.

  2. Hear Mum Roar says:

    Night terrors are a little different to nightmares, in that kids don't really have the same awareness or memory of them as they do with nightmares.

    With night terrors, I find just comforting them until they are settled is pretty much all you can do. They don't seem to remember anything afterward, and they do grow out of them. It's one of those 'ride it out' things:) Always heartbreaking for the parents too

  3. It sounds as though you are doing everything you can, and are very responsive to your little one. My son had them for a little while, I don't know why or what stopped them…but like everything we just loved him through it. He's 6 now and they are a distant memory.

  4. Megan Blandford says:

    My little one has these every now and then (she's 2). I've tried reading up on them, but have never found any way to help stop them, other than just reducing stimulation before bedtime (which can be a bit hard if we're out or have people over!).

    When they happen, we do things similar to you – trying to talk through different things, and eventually you'll say something that breaks through it and she'll crawl back in bed. Until then, I find it's best to just sit near her and talk to her – touch her and she's likely to hurt herself by flinging herself as far from you as possible. It's heartbreaking to watch :(

  5. I've had some experience with this with my little boy who turns 3 in February. It happens every couple of months, for no particular reason. It took a while to realise he wasn't actually 'awake' although he was responding to me talking to him. He becomes very distressed, and won't let me pick him up, or carry him to my bed. It took a while to click that these were indeed night terrors. Sleep expert Tizzie Hall has some advice in her books about this (see her website The common recommendation is to make NO attempt to wake your child. Be there to protect them from harming themselves and let it ride out. I find the least intervention I made the better. I recall my boss talking about when his daughter, now in her 20s, suffered from night terrors. he and his wife described it as being almost like she was possessed! It can be very disturbing, but as other people who've commented have noted, it will pass in time.

  6. My 22 month has them. He seems awake isn't. Mainly when he is really tired and has watched TV beg ire bed. We also co sleep and just comfort him.. They seem to grow out of them . I hope so.they are pretty scary.

  7. Zoey @ Good Goog says:

    Night terrors only a couple of times with our daughter when she was about 2 and luckily they haven't happened since. Although it did take me a while to figure out what was happening. Because she seemed to be awake but was having a full blown temper taantrum at 2am! The least intervention possible worked the best for us. Although I have read that if the night terrors happen at the same time every night you can try waking them up before that time and then putting them back to sleep and after a few nights they shouldn't have the night terrors any more because you've broken the cycle. No idea if it works though!

    Good luck! They are a really difficult thing to go through and while they might not remember them, you sure do!

  8. My son had night terrors for a long time – he is now 5 y.o. and we haven't had many for nearly a year. Like you we found they were triggered by overtiredness. They were definitely different from nightmares (usually in the early part of the night and not remembered in the morning). We found it best not to try and wake my son up but just to be there and say something like 'Mummy's here'.
    The only other thing was that as my son got older we found that taking him to the toilet when he woke screaming helped him settle back to sleep. It was like he slept heavily and couldn't quite get awake for the toilet but really wanted to go and would start screaming.

  9. contact parentline on 1300 301 300 and ask for their tipsheet on night terrors

    Main points are common, developmental, most grow out of, similar to sleep talking/walking in that about brain states/sleep wake cycles etc and child is NOT awake and will have NO recall of (as opposed to a bad dream/nightmare – where they awake, frightened etc)

    With a night terror they may even have their eyes open but be NOT awake and not responsive. As others have already stated best advice is to
    a) see if their are any known or suspected triggers eg overstimulation, over tiredness, a certain food, too much of something, overheated/too hot at bed etc etc and remove what you can but there may be no obvious trigger and may occur randomly as developmental stage/brain issue


    b) dont wake child, keep them safe, let it ride its course, soothe and comfort as you can and return to bed and dont make a big deal of. They will have no recall of it

  10. Mummy McTavish says:

    It's hard, it's so very hard. But the one thing you need to remind yourself is it's harder on you. Your daughter most likely doesn't remember a thing the next day, no matter how shaken you are feeling! My son would remember that he woke up and went back to sleep but not that it had anything to do with a dream, good or bad.

    We went through years of night terrors from the time my oldest was 6 months old. We picked up on them quickly as my sister had suffered with them for years too. But everything I read said "usually…" and his were not usual. They weren't early in the night, they started at 2am. He didn't have one a night, he would have sometimes 3 a night. They weren't caused by any of the "usual" culprits, we couldn't figure out what they were caused by. We were tearing our hair out. After 12 months of them I picked up that if he started groaning and moaning from about 10pm we could guarantee a screaming wake up at 2am… but there was nothing I could do about it. At my wits end I came across Healing Hippo "sleepy spray" with Australian Native Wild Flowers in it (or something along those lines) and we gave it a go. I didn't spray his pillow every night but if I heard his grumbling start I'd go in and spray and the frequency of his terrors dropped right back, no longer every night and it was rare to have more than one a night. I don't think the spray is available anymore but the concept could be looked into easily. The other thing, something I rarely saw mentioned, was working on a "comfort cue" while he was awake. This also worked for a friend of mine when her son started getting terrors when he started daycare. For us we used his favourite lullaby CD, for my friend she used a favourite DVD. During the day, while they are well rested and happy, put on the CD, sing them the song, read the book, whatever your cue is (must be able to travel with you if you go away!!!) hold them in your arms and make them feel safe. Make it a good place to be. When they have a terror, put it into play then… hold them, sing/read/whatever, just like you have been during the day. It didn't work the first few times for us but soon it changed things very dramatically. I could walk into his room with him sitting on the bed screaming and I would turn on the CD to track 2 and sit on the bed and hold him and sing along and he would stop and be calm in my arms. Eventually the music was enough which meant I could happily let him have a sleepover at grandmas as long as she had the CD.

    We still have the odd terror, but mostly they are your everyday run of the mill nightmares now. I never thought I would say it… but I'd trade them for the terrors happily. At least then it was only me that remembered the next morning the fear I'd seen in his eyes.

    Interestingly… Research seems to indicate that they are quite likely genetic. For us, my sister suffered with them for years and though my MIL didn't know it until she was learning about them with our son, she said it is exactly like what my husband had when he was young. Something you might want to ask the family about over Christmas dinner :-)

    I really hope this helps, I'm happy to answer any questions through email if this is confusing (it's late at night, I'm not sure if this makes very long comment makes any sense at all!) You can find my email on my profile page.

  11. My daughter now 9 had just 1 incident of this. She woke up screaming that her dolly was outside getting rained on, she carried on for 30 minutes before falling back to sleep. She acted like she was struggling to get through everything and get to her baby. Even if nothing was there. We have several dolls and whenever her cousin came over she'd pick the favorite doll, didn't matter who had it first. Both girls were about 2 1/2 years old. It was my husbands brothers child, both men (my husband and his brother) would say that the visiting child should take whatever she wanted. I knew this doll was my daughters favorite so we (she and I) would hide it sometimes when they came over. Usually I would tell her to go choose another toy, as someone else had the toy first. That day the visiting father had told my daughter to stand in the corner for not giving up her toys. That was a last straw for me. That night when she had the night terror my husband realized how bad it was getting and said she didn't ever have to let people take her things unless she wanted to. It was hard on us and she had no recollection later. I am so grateful she didn't have them more. My 5 year old will walk around the house not making any noise, but asleep, until I guide her to the bathroom, then she goes right to bed after that.
    It was a good experience for my husband to learn to stand up for his children even to a friend.

    • Have you thought about teaching your child to share all her dolls, after all they are only dolls. If she doesn’t have such a strong attachment then there is no need to be so upset, and hopefully no night terrors about losing her doll.

      You helping her hiding the doll is not only letting the doll down but also Mum!

      • I disagree. A child should share because they want to. That’s the beauty of sharing. Not because someone made them share. A child should not be made to share everything. They should have comfort that somethings are theirs and theirs alone..

  12. My 4yr old has had night terrors since he was around 14 months old. Nothing I did seemed to help. He would wake up in the middle of the night screaming and would be that distressed he would start vomiting. Then around 6 months ago I started doing yoga at night time with the boys followed by meditation. I get the boys to lie down and imagine that their body is a jelly fish bobbing in the water and that their arms and legs are flippy floppy. Once they're relaxed I get them to imagine they are walking in a green field full of beautiful flowers and colourful butterflies and in the centre of this field is a giant tree, the worry tree, on each branch is a bucket. I ask them to grab a bucket and fill it with all their worries and fears and then hang it on the tree and walk away, as they walk they notice our house and they walk up inside and hop into bed. Once we've done this we hop into bed, read some relaxing stories and the boys drift happily off to bed. My 4yr old has only had one nightmare since we started and I was able to calm him down without him getting too distressed

  13. If anyone is looking for good pre bed (or any time of the day) meditations for children. There is a series of books that are simple visualistions to help children sleep peacefully, learn to relax etc. They are called Starbright and Earthlight (and think there are more also) by Maureen Garth. Should be available in bookstores and/or online

    Also a great set of CDs (Australian too) called Lets imagine. There is a Bush Adventure one for 4-10 year olds and a Crystal Castle one for 6-13 yos and there are others such as a space one etc. They are created by Isabel and David Andrews and narrated by various people Google LETS IMAGINE by Isabel and David Andrews and should be able to find them online. We have got on iPod and my 5 yr old listens to the Bush Adventure one before bed

  14. We have been dealing with night terrors for a few years now. Our eldest is 7 and she still sometimes occasionally has them and now our three year old is too.

    The thing with night terrors is that although they are horrible for the parents while they are happening the child should have no memory of the event at all when they wake in the morning because they are not awake. (if they do remember them it is not a night terror as such, more a nightmare)

    So while it's not easy for you at the time it isn't scary or upsetting for the child because they have no idea it's happening. Reminding myself of that helps a lot when my kids appear to be loosing their minds at midnight.

    Some people say looking out for triggers like food or over stimulation can help. I've also heard that waking the child just before they would normally have a night terror can also help… but ours are so spaced out I wasn't prepared to wake my child on the off chance tonight was the night…. so we just ride them out as best we can.

  15. Hi everyone, Thankyou so much for all of your comments. It's really reassuring to know we're not alone in this. Over tiredness, illness and late nights are definitely triggers for Emma (3.5ys), our 2yr old has so sign of it, thank goodness, otherwise we'd be completely exhausted. Someone suggested it might be genetic, which rings true for us. My husband and I both sleep talk/walk, my sisters both did too, not so sure about night terrors, but it's definitely something I'll be asking the family about. The suggestion of meditations/yoga/relaxation were great. It's not something we really do, but I'll definitely start doing. It is heart breaking and exhuasting, you do feel tired and helpless, but knowing it will subside and we can actually do something to help our babies through is definitely reassuring. Thanks again everyone for your helpful and positive comments. Hopefully we've been able to help others out there in the same boat. Lorri xx

  16. Hi, I have four kids and two of my boys have experienced night terrors. One is still a very "active" dreamer!

    Firstly, from what they have told me themselves, they do not remember even having the terrors, so it is only you who is having a horrible experience – which may or may not comfort you!

    I was worn out after a few nights of this so in the end we took the decision of taking it in turns to sleep in their bed with them and always having a sippy cup near by as some times the little drink would wake them up enough to get them out of it for the rest of that night.

    It is terrifying seeing your little one screaming like a mad person for no apparent reason but it did pass after a couple of weeks and they were none the worse for their experience. They are now 6 and 7 years old, and although the eldest has vivid dreams he does not wake up screaming any more so they do tend to grow out of it. They also seem to be better in their own beds – I don't know why.

    I hope it passes soon for you and you can catch up on your Zzzzs soon!

  17. I wrote a little about night terrors (and there is discussion from others) on my fb page:!/note.php?note_id=407689562219

  18. Chic Mummy says:

    My 4 yo is going through this right now. Apparently night terrors are caused when the child partially wakes from stage 4 (deep sleep). If you can catch your child having them on a regular schedule (usally 1-2 hours after falling asleep) you can pre-empt it by nudging then gently so that they stir about 15 minutes before it usually happens. This has worked for us about 3-4 nights of the week.

    The rest of the time it hasn't done anything, and what seems to get the episode over quickest is lying behind his back and gently restraining his arms and legs so he can't hurt himself or fall out of bed.

    Good luck!

  19. Our first child was causing my partner and I to get very little sleep and we were lucky enough to get referred onto Beth Barclay, a mothercraft expert. She was very helpful and supportive and with her advice we put a routine in place to get the little fella sleeping at consistent times.

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