Night Terrors in Babies: What They Are and How to Stop Them
Updated Feb 13th 2023 | 7 min read
Updated Feb 13th 2023 | 7 min read
Written By Mandy Treeby Chief Baby Sleep Consultant
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.
IN THIS ARTICLE:
For more on the ins and outs of your baby's sleep, and for step-by-step guidance through the sleep training journey, download the Smart Sleep Coach by Pampers™. In addition to step by step sleep support and expert insights, this ground-breaking app guarantees to improve your baby's sleep!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Note: If your baby has night terrors or nightmares, let your babysitter know ahead of time. Don't want to give them a fright!
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.
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.
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.
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:
Again, no one is quite sure why some babies experience night terrors, but the following scenarios may contribute to night terrors:
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.
If your baby has a night terror or has them regularly, they will most likely stop around age 7.
Most often babies do not remember that they've had a night terror or the substance of the night terror.
Though scientists still don't understand what causes night terrors, studies do show that babies who have night terrors are more likely to sleepwalk
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.
The Smart Sleep Coach by Pampers™ will help you with that, or you can also read these month-by-month sleep schedules to get an idea of when bedtime should be.
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.
Very rarely a baby can experience a night terror, yes. A night terror is different than a nightmare in that a baby experiencing a night terror may appear awake while screaming, trembling, or thrashing. Though scary for a parent, night terrors do not hurt children, and most will not remember it happened.
While there are no signs a baby is more likely to have them, night terrors themselves are distinguished by screaming and flailing arms or legs, and physiological signs of fear, including rapid heartbeat and sweating.
Research suggests that maintaining a steady sleep schedule, performing calming bedtime routines, and avoiding frightening stories or imagery may help reduce night terrors. There are not, however, any current treatments guaranteed to end night terrors in babies.
If your baby wakes up screaming, rather than a typical cry, they may be having a nightmare or a night terror. These are two different things. A nightmare is a very bad dream, and your baby can be woken up from a nightmare.
Night terrors are semi-conscious episodes in which your baby may scream, tremble, or thrash. They cannot be woken from night terrors. The good news, though, is that night terrors are rare and usually brief.
“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.