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What are Night Terrors?

What are night terrors

Night terrors can be very frightening for both you and your child. Night terrors are not nightmares. They generally occur within a couple of hours after your child has fallen asleep. During an episode of your child may bolt upright, sweat profusely with a racing heartbeat, and shriek or scream for anywhere from a couple of minutes to half an hour.

Unfortunately, children in the throes of a night terror generally cannot be roused. Their eyes might be open, their heart racing, and they might be sweating, but they will be unresponsive to your attempts to calm them down. Some children also thrash around in bed during an episode of nap terrors.

Night terrors are more common in children about 3-12 years old. It can be extremely unsettling, but it’s not uncommon for children to have their first night terror while they are still in preschool (ages 3-4). Researchers aren’t certain what causes sleep terrors, but there appears to be a hereditary component, so if you or someone in your child’s direct family has experienced night terrors, your child is more likely to have them.

Night terrors can also be triggered by other things: when your child is overtired; by certain medications; stress (such as if parents are going through a divorce, a move to a new home, or the arrival of a sibling); or by a fever.

Unlike nightmares, most children who have sleep terrors cannot remember them. In fact, while they may be tired the next day or have symptoms of mild sleep deprivation, they may have absolutely no idea they even had a night terror. Of course, for Mom or Dad helplessly watching your child in distress, the same cannot be said. For tips on how to handle night terrors, see how to treat night terrors.

Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, December 2018


  • Christian Guilleminault, Luciana Palombini, Rafael Pelayo, and Ronald D
  • Chervin, MD, “Sleepwalking and Sleep Terrors in Prepubertal Children: What Triggers Them?” Pediatrics, Vol
  • 111 No
  • 1 January 1, 2003, pp
  • e17-e25 (doi: 10.1542/peds.111.1.e17).

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