Ways to Help a Child Through Sleep Terrors

night terror

Q What are sleep terrors? What causes them, and what should I do when they occur? — Kelly S.


A Occasional nightmares are normal after 6 months of age. However, some children have sleep terrors, which are different from nightmares; they are very alarming sleep events they rarely remember.

Kamal Naqvi, M.D.

Kamal Naqvi, M.D.

During sleep terrors, children exhibit profound fear and panic — including screaming, acting fearful, kicking, sleepwalking and sleep talking. These events generally occur during the first half of sleep and are often related to lack of sleep. After an episode, children can usually return to sleep more easily than if they had a nightmare.

Gently get your child back into bed after a sleep terror. If they happen often, and their timing is predictable, gently wake the child 15 minutes beforehand and reassure him or her that everything is fine. Talking about the sleep terrors does not help. It can disturb or confuse a child to hear about things he or she does not remember.

Children usually outgrow sleep terrors with age, but eliminating them can be as simple as making sure your child gets more sleep. If your child is experiencing sleep problems, ask your pediatrician for a referral to a sleep specialist.

— Kamal Naqvi, M.D., sleep medicine specialist in the Sleep Disorders Center at Children’s and assistant professor of Pediatrics at UT Southwestern

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