The subject of this article, night terrors in babies, may sound scary - and, yes, night terrors in babies can be unsettling - but rest assured that night terrors do not hurt your baby. And, even more importantly, night terrors are rare - only about 3-6% of children ever experience them.
That said, it's always good to know what to expect, so here I'll discuss the signs of night terrors in babies, explain what to do if your baby has a night terror and offer insights into how sleep training may help alleviate it.
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What Are Night Terrors in Babies?
A night terror is an episodic sleep disorder in which a baby will scream, cry, or shout out while asleep. Your baby may appear awake, but they are actually in a semi-conscious state.
Symptoms of night terrors in babies include:
- Inconsolable crying, sobbing, or screaming.
- Shivering, shaking, or trembling (Distinct from a seizure*)
- Racing heart
- Wide, frightened eyes
- Not “seeing” the room - their eyes are glazed, as if asleep but with eyes open
As frightening as night terrors can be for you, your baby is not in pain. In fact, most will not even remember they've had a night terror.
*In the very, very rare case that your baby has a seizure while experiencing what appears to be a night terror, consult your pediatrician.
Do Night Terrors Hurt Babies?
No, night terrors themselves do not hurt babies physically or emotionally. The only potential hazard is if your baby thrashes or flails their arms while having a night terror. If this happens, gently hold their arms and/or legs or hold them close.
Should I Wake My Baby from a Night Terror?
No. First, night terrors can be very difficult to stop once they've started. Most often they resolve themselves and your baby goes peacefully back to sleep or wakes up on their own.
Another reason you shouldn't try to wake your baby from a night terror is that they're more of a semi-conscious state than a sleep state, so “waking up” would be like “snapping out of it.”
Also, it may be harder to get your baby back to sleep after “snapping them out” of the night terror.
What Do I Do If My Baby Has a Night Terror?
- Take a deep breath and stay calm. As unsettling as it is, this is just a brief, harmless blip.
- Do not try to rouse them.
- Keep your baby in bed if they try to get out.
- Hold their arms and legs if they thrash.
Note: If your baby has night terrors or nightmares, let your babysitter know ahead of time. Don't want to give them a fright!
How Long Do Night Terrors Last?
A night terror itself may last anywhere from a few minutes to up to 45. Once the night terror subsides, your baby will likely drift back to sleep.
How Are Night Terrors Different Than Nightmares?
Nightmares are just bad dreams. That means that your baby can be woken from a nightmare.
Night terrors are different. It's more of a semi-conscious state than being asleep. That's why it's best not to wake your baby if they're having a night terror.
One good thing, though, is that it's easier to get a baby back to sleep after a night terror than a nightmare.
When Do Night Terrors Happen?
Night terrors typically happen in the earlier part of your baby's sleep. Nightmares, on the other hand, occur later at night when your baby is in deeper, REM sleep.
Why Do Night Terrors Happen in Babies?
Night terrors are a pretty mysterious phenomenon, and no one is quite sure what causes night terrors in babies, or in adults. There are, however, two theories:
- Since night terrors happen earlier in one's sleep, usually within the first three hours, some research suggests night terrors are linked to the transition from non-REM sleep to REM Sleep.
- Another theory is that night terrors are linked to the development of your baby's central nervous system.
What Causes Night Terror in Babies?
Again, no one is quite sure why some babies experience night terrors, but the following scenarios may contribute to night terrors:
- Fever or illness
- Stress from a new situation
- New room/sleeping arrangement
- They're not sleeping well
When Do Night Terrors in Babies Start?
Night terrors typically happen when a child is older, between 3-7 years of age, though can start as early as 18 months. It's far rarer for babies to have night terrors earlier than 18-months but it can happen.
How Long Do Night Terrors Last?
If your baby has a night terror or has them regularly, they will most likely stop around age 7.
Will My Baby Remember a Night Terror?
Most often babies do not remember that they've had a night terror or the substance of the night terror.
What is the Relationship Between Night Terrors and Sleep Walking?
Though scientists still don't understand what causes night terrors, studies do show that babies who have night terrors are more likely to sleepwalk
How Do I Stop Night Terror in Babies?
While there are no ways to completely stop or prevent night terrors, there are ways to mitigate them.
Perform Your Calming Routine: Whether your baby is 6 months or 6 years old, taking a few minutes for calm activity before bed can settle their minds and create a feeling of security that may ward off nightmares or night terrors.
Maintain Consistent, Age-Appropriate Sleep Schedules: Research does suggest that fluctuations in bedtime and overtiredness in babies may contribute to night terrors. To prevent night terrors, maintain a consistent bedtime and sleep schedule for your baby.
Either way, maintaining a consistent sleep schedule is about more than preventing nightmares or night terrors - healthy sleep promotes overall health for years to come .
Respond Quickly: It's typically best to let your baby cry a bit before checking on them at night, but if your baby screams inconsolably or has a history of night terrors, definitely check on them immediately.
Also, while you should not wake your baby from a night terror, do be there to offer reassurances and to prevent any thrashing or sleep walking.
Note: Do not try to wake your baby if they have a night terror. Simply being present and offering reassurances is enough in that case.
Discuss It: Most often your baby will not remember their night terror. In fact, most will never remember they've even had one. However, it won't hurt to ask - and it may help for your baby to discuss and learn that something like that cannot hurt them. It's just a very big bad dream.
Try Night Lights: Literally shedding a little light can help keep nights metaphorically bright.
Avoid Scary Stories Before Bed: This may seem obvious, but “grim” themes have a habit of appearing in traditional fairy tales, like the Grimm Brothers' collection.
Even if it may not seem scary on the surface, a topic like children losing a parent or being lost in the woods may frighten your baby. If your baby is prone to nightmares or night terrors, stick to books with more comedic tones.
“Inconsolable night-time awakening: beyond night terrors,” Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.
“Common Sleep Disorders in Children,” American Family Physician.
“Night Terrors: Strategies for Families Coping,” Journal of Pediatric Nursing.
How We Wrote This Article
The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.