Symptoms of Night Terrors in Children

The difference between normal nightmares and night terrors is that your child may scream, thrash around, or even sit up in bed or jump out of bed with their eyes open when they are experiencing night terrors. Although your child may look awake, he or she may not even recognize you when you try to provide comfort. The most worrying thing about night terrors is that children often look absolutely terrified when they are in the middle of them, and there doesn't seem to be much you can do to help as they aren't really aware that you are there. Another difference between night terrors and nightmares is that most children who have night terrors won't remember anything about them when they do wake up. A child who wakes up from a nightmare will often remember what the dream was about, and they will usually be able to recall what happened the next day. A child who has night terrors won't usually be aware that anything strange happened while they were sleeping.



Night terrors can last for up to about 15 minutes and they can happen several times during the night. In some cases, the symptoms can last longer, but this is rare. Most children experience night terrors during the earlier part of the night, as it usually happens before they have started dreaming.

During a night terror you might notice some or all of the following symptoms:

  • Sitting up suddenly in the bed
  • Thrashing around
  • Screaming or shouting out as if in distress
  • Rapid breathing and heartbeat
  • Sweating
  • Appearing to be upset or afraid
  • Crying
  • Not being able to recognise you or see you despite having their eyes open
  • Trying to push you away when you comfort them

The symptoms of night terrors in children won’t usually last very long, so your child should soon settle back into a quiet sleep and have no memory of the experience. Children aren’t awake during night terrors even though they often have their eyes open or move around so they won’t be upset about it when they wake up. However, it can be very distressing for you or other members of the family to witness a night terror.

Night terrors are most common in younger children between the ages of about three and eight, but they can happen in older children or babies too. Baby night terrors can be particularly disturbing as it can be harder to recognise what is happening. You might think that your baby is awake and having difficulty breathing, rather than being asleep and in the middle of a night terror.

Causes of Night Terrors in Children

Night terrors happen when a child wakes up suddenly in the middle of one of the deepest periods of sleep. During this deep sleep, your child isn't dreaming, so they aren't being woken up by a bad nightmare. Night terrors in children usually happen about two to three hours after falling asleep. At this point, children are shifting from the deepest stage of sleep into a lighter sleep. If the central nervous system (CNS) becomes over-aroused during this transition, it can result in a night terror. The body goes through a stress response, but the brain is still in a deep sleep.

Since the brain is still so deeply asleep during a night terror, your child won’t be dreaming or aware of what is going on at all. Even when they wake up, your child probably won’t remember what happened. It can be hard to accept that your child isn’t experiencing a nightmare when they appear to be so afraid, but night terrors can only happen when the brain is still in this deep, dreamless phase of sleep. If your child wakes up from a simple nightmare then the experience will be very different as they’ll be aware of your presence and what is happening.

Children who have a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking may be more likely to experience these kinds of problems themselves. Certain factors that affect your child's sleep can also trigger an attack of night terrors. Night terrors are more likely to happen when your child is ill with a fever or is particularly tired, as this can result in a longer period of deep, dreamless sleep. Anything that makes your child more likely to wake up from this deep sleep can also increase the chances of having night terrors. Potential issues could include feeling more anxious or excited than usual, sudden noises or disturbances, or simply having a full bladder that is making sleep uncomfortable.

Complications of Night Terrors in Children

Night terrors in children aren’t usually anything to worry about as they aren’t generally caused by any underlying medical issues and won’t cause any serious complications. Since children won’t remember having a night terror, they won’t usually feel upset about it as long as you remain calm when discussing what happened.

However, night terrors in children can sometimes be a sign that something is disrupting their sleep. As with any other kind of sleep problem in children, it is a good idea to consider the possible causes. If your child isn’t sleeping well due to a disruptive environment, anxiety or other issues then it could cause other problems too. Getting a good night’s sleep is essential for children’s mental and physical wellbeing.

In some cases, night terrors can happen because children’s sleep is disrupted by an underlying medical condition such as sleep apnoea. Sleep apnoea can affect children’s breathing, which could cause some potentially serious health problems so it is essential to see a doctor if you suspect your child might be affected by it.

Another potential issue to be aware of is that children can move around a lot during night terrors. Baby night terrors can also be a sign that children are more likely to sleepwalk. If your child is moving around during their sleep then it is vital to ensure they will be safe. You will need to take precautions such as fitting gates to prevent them reaching the stairs and ensuring there is nothing that could hurt them if they knock into it while moving around in bed.

It is also important to consider how child or baby night terrors could affect the rest of the family. If your child is sharing a bedroom with a sibling then it is important to ensure they understand what is going on as it could be very frightening for them. Baby night terrors can also be upsetting for you and they may disrupt your sleep, especially if they go on for a long time.

When to See a Doctor?

Having the occasional nightmare is normal, but if your child is experiencing night terrors it can be a very frightening experience for you or for any sibling who are in the same bedroom. Thankfully, most children who have night terrors seem to remember very little about them when they wake up. However, if your child is experiencing night terrors several times a night, they are being disturbed most nights, or the problem has gone on for a long time, it might be a good idea to seek advice from a doctor. You might also want to see a doctor to confirm that your child is having night terrors as it can be reassuring to know that there is nothing else gong on.

It is also worth seeing a specialist doctor if any kind of sleep problem is having a negative impact on your child, such as making them anxious, affecting their concentration at school, or leaving them feeling tired and irritable. Night terrors in children can sometimes be a sign of other sleep problems as they often occur when the deepest period of sleep is disrupted by something. The doctor will be able to help identify possible causes of disrupted sleep and recommend ways to tackle them.

Diagnosis and Treatment of Night Terrors

Seeing a doctor can reveal whether there are any underlying problems that might be causing your child to wake up at the wrong time. For example, problems such as sleep apnoea that affect your child's breathing could be waking them up during deep sleep, resulting in night terrors. At the very least, the doctor will be able to rule out any medical or physical issues that could be affecting your child's sleep.

The doctor will usually be able to diagnose child or baby night terrors from your description of the symptoms, but they may also want to run some tests to rule out other possibilities. It may also be necessary for the doctor to observe your child during a sleep study, especially if they have other issues such as insomnia too.

Talking to a doctor who is a sleep specialist can also help you to come up with an effective strategy for preventing night terrors. Creating a peaceful sleeping environment can help, as can addressing any worries that might be waking your child up at night. You should make sure that your child has a relaxing bedtime routine and that they are going to bed before they get over-tired. The bedroom should be a calm, dark and quiet environment where they will be able to sleep peacefully. Sticking to a set bedtime and making sure your child gets enough sleep for their age is important too.

If the episodes usually occur at the same time each night, it can help to wake them up about 15 minutes before this, every night for about a week. This can change their sleep pattern enough to prevent the episodes.

Getting the bedtime routine right is the best way to address baby night terrors, but when older children are affected it can also help to talk to them. Sometimes sleep problems can be a sign that children are upset or worried about something so it is important to ask how they are feeling or to chat about their day.

The most important thing to remember about night terrors is that they are more frightening for you than they are for your child. Most children won't even be aware that they are having them. The best thing you can do during a night terror is to stay calm and wait for it to pass. Don't try to intervene or wake your child up, unless you have to in order to protect them. For example, you may need to stop a child from sleep walking if there is a risk that he or she could fall down the stairs. Your child probably won't recognize you in the middle of an episode, so they could actually become more agitated even if you are trying to comfort them.

If your child is having night terrors or any kind of sleep problems then you can make an appointment with Professor Habibi. The doctor will diagnose the problem and provide personalised advice on what you can do to address it. Although night terrors are usually harmless it is important to ensure that your child is getting plenty of high quality sleep as it will affect their mood, concentration and physical health.

Speak To Your Specialist Professor Parviz Habibi

0203 903 7866

Make An Enquiry

Professor Parviz Habibi Available At

The New Malden Diagnostic Centre

171 Clarence Avenue, Surrey, KT3 3TX

The Portland Hospital Out Patient Centre

205-209 Great Portland, Street London, W1W 5AH