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Night terrors - sleep terrors (children)

nightmares; bad; dreams; sleep; night; terrors; parasomnias; disturbances;

Night terrors are when a child becomes very agitated during deep sleep. They usually happen between the ages of 18 months and six years.

They may:

  • scream suddenly or cry and look pale and scared
  • kick and thrash about
  • call for you but not ‘see’ you and cannot be comforted
  • breathe heavily, perspire and stare with wide-open eyes.

This can last for a few minutes or up to 20 minutes. A child having a night terror is not dreaming. They are also not awake. In the morning they will not remember what happened.

While these can frighten children and worry parents, children usually grow out of them in time.

Night terrors may be called sleep terrors, because they can happen during any sleep, such as a daytime nap.


During an episode of night terrors, children can cry, shout or sometimes scream, but do not know that you are there.

  • A child may be sitting in bed or be out of bed, with eyes wide open, calling for you, but they do not 'see' you and may push you away if you try to comfort them.
  • They are likely to have a rapid heart rate, be breathing fast, and be sweaty, crying, shouting, or even screaming or groaning.
  • They may continue to cry or shout for a few minutes, sometimes up to 20 minutes, and rarely, for an hour or longer.
  • Then, quite suddenly they will relax, maybe look around briefly and go quickly back to sleep.

This can be scary to watch, but it does not hurt or scare children and in the morning they will not remember that anything has happened.

Up to 3% of children experience night terrors at some time - they are thought to be 'normal' for some children. Children are more likely to have disturbed sleep if other people in the family have also had sleep disturbances. 

Night terrors are not a sign of mental health problems, but may happen more often in times of stress.

Night terrors or nightmare?

Night terrors happen less often than nightmares, and can sometimes seem like nightmares, but they are different in several ways.

  • Night terrors do not happen during dreams. With night terrors, children are unable to remember any bad dream or to tell their parents what is frightening them, and in the morning they will not remember that anything has happened.
  • Night terrors usually happen in the early part of the night, often about 1 to 2 hours after the child has gone to sleep.
  • It seems that a child almost wakes up, but does not completely wake (a 'partial wakening'). After a nightmare, children fully wake up and cry until you come to them.
  • These awakenings often happen for several days in a row, sometimes longer, and then go away for a while. They may come back when the child is unwell, overtired or stressed.

You may have been woken up during the night just as you became deeply asleep. You would have felt terrible, almost ill, if you had to get out of bed.  This may be similar to the feelings of night terrors.

Any sudden change in the pattern of a child's sleep may be triggered by something stressful happening in her life, but these sleep disturbances can also happen when there are no new stresses.

Some children who have night terrors also walk in their sleep or talk while asleep (see Sleep walking and sleep talking)


  • Nightmares are frightening dreams which wake children up and leave them feeling upset and scared that something awful has happened or is going to happen.
  • Nightmares happen during 'dreaming' sleep, and most dreaming sleep happens towards the end of the night, so children usually wake with nightmares in the second half of the night.
  • On waking from a nightmare, a child will know that you are there, and usually be able to tell you what has frightened him if he is old enough to be able to put it into words.
  • For more information about nightmares and what to do see our topic Nightmares.

What causes night terrors?

  • The cause of night terrors is not known, but having night terrors runs in families (it seems to be inherited). Usually there are other people in the family who have had night terrors, or sleepwalking or sleep talking.
  • Night terrors usually start happening when a child is around 4 to 7 years old (sometimes younger) and may happen off and on until the child reaches puberty. It is unusual for them to happen in older teenagers or adults.
  • Night terrors seem to happen more often when there is a stressful event such as starting school, but often there is no obvious stress in the child's life.
  • Sometimes they occur on nights when a child is unwell.
  • They seem to happen more often when a child is not getting enough sleep.
  • Some people have linked night terrors to developmental stages in children's lives, such as toilet training, but many others do not think these are linked.
  • Having night terrors is not linked to having psychological problems later in life. They seem to be a temporary 'phase' which children grow out of.

What to do about night terrors

Even though he may not let you comfort him, you need to go to your child, make sure that he is safe, and stay with him until he can relax back into sleep. Often the crying and agitation stop abruptly and the child goes straight back to sleep without fully waking up.

  • It’s best not to wake your child from a night terror. He may be confused and take longer to settle. Trying to wake a child may make him more agitated. Just let him go back to sleep when he calms down.
  • Stay with your child even if he doesn't let you comfort him. Make sure he is safe. Guide him back to bed if needed. If he is doing something unsafe, such as climbing onto furniture, you do need to stop him, even if he fights you.
  • Talking gently and touching or cuddling him may help him become calm, but if this causes him to be more distressed, just sit nearby.
  • Talking about it the next day may embarrass and worry your child as they will not remember what happened. Make sure your child is not teased about it.
  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep, has a relaxing bedtime routine and goes to the toilet before bed.

Some people have suggested trying planned waking for about a week.

  • Since the night terrors tend to start around the same time each night, go to him about 10 to 15 minutes before then.
  • Rouse him a little so that he is almost awake, talk to him, perhaps take him to the toilet or give him a small drink of water.
  • After about 5 minutes, let him go back to sleep.

This might change his sleep pattern enough so that he does not have the partial wakening later in the night. But it may not work.

Think about what is happening in his life and see if there is anything that might be stressful and could be changed. This may not have an effect, but it is worth thinking about.

If your child is not getting enough sleep, try to get him into a better sleep routine. Our topic Sleep - 3 years to 6 years has ideas about how to do this.

Taking care of yourself

Work out how to take care of yourself. It is very distressing being woken by a child who you cannot comfort.

  • Remember that night terrors are much more upsetting to watch than they are to experience. Children do not have any memory of what has happened, and do not suffer any psychological harm from them.
  • Remember also that night terrors are not a sign of mental health problems.
  • Talk to other people in your family and see if there is a family pattern.
  • Talk to your neighbours about what is happening, so that you do not have to worry about what they may think about your child screaming during the night.

Night terrors usually go away within a week or so, but if they persist, talk to your doctor. It is common for them to come back several times until your child is older.

Want more information? 

Parent Helpline Phone 1300 364 100 For advice on child health and parenting

Child and Family Health Service (CaFHS) Phone 1300 733 606, 9am-4.30pm, Mon-Fri for an appointment.  

Parenting SA For more Parent Easy Guides e.g. ‘Sleep (0–6years)’, ‘Bedwetting’, ‘Living with toddlers’ and ‘Dealing with a crisis’  

Raising Children Network For parenting information 

Talk with your doctor - if your child is having very disturbed sleep, an assessment by a specialist in child health could be of use, and maybe a referral to a Sleep Disorders unit.


Some of the information in this topic comes from the Parent Easy Guide 44 'Sleep disturbance' developed by Parenting SA

Parenting SA is a partnership between the Department for Education and the Women’s and Children’s Health Network South Australia. 

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The information on this site should not be used as an alternative to professional care. If you have a particular problem, see a doctor, or ring the Parent Helpline on 1300 364 100 (local call cost from anywhere in South Australia).

This topic may use 'he' and 'she' in turn - please change to suit your child's sex.

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