Night Terrors: How We Treat

How are night terrors treated?

The Breathing Institute at Children's Hospital Colorado

Treatment of night terrors is focused on calming your child back to sleep and keeping him or her safe during the episode. Parents can also follow some night terror prevention strategies. Doctors rarely use medication to treat night terrors in children.

Follow these steps to help your child through a night terror:

Try to help your child return to normal, calm sleep.

  • Don’t try to wake your child; it is not possible during a night terror.
  • Turn on the lights so that your child is less confused by shadows.
  • Make soothing comments such as, "You are all right. You are home in your own bed. You can rest now."
  • Speak calmly and repetitively.
  • Such comments are usually better than silence and may help your child refocus.
  • Some children like to have their hand held during this time, but most will pull away.
  • Hold your child only if it seems to help them feel better.
  • Understand that there is no way to shorten the episode.
  • Shaking or shouting at your child will just cause the child to become more agitated and will prolong the episode.
  • Keep your child safe. During a night terror, a child can fall down a stairway, run into a wall, or break a window. Gently direct your child back to bed.
  • Explain to babysitters and overnight caretakers what a night terror is and what to do if one happens. Understanding this will help them stay calm and control the situation if your child has a night terror.

Prevention of night terrors

Keep your child from becoming overtired. Sleep deprivation is the most common trigger for night terrors.

  • For preschoolers, restore the afternoon nap. If your child refuses the nap, encourage a one-hour "quiet time."
  • Avoid late bedtimes because they may trigger a night terror.
  • If your child needs to be awakened in the morning, that means he needs an earlier bedtime.
  • Move lights-out time 15 minutes earlier each night until your child can self-awaken in the morning.
  • Hot bedrooms stimulate these events; cool the room and use a fan if necessary.
  • Fever, inflammation, teething and illness can stimulate these events, so use an anti-inflammatory such as Motrin for fever or inflammation.
  • Some drugs, such as Benadryl, will trigger these events so avoid them when possible.
  • Hot baths just before bed may raise the body temperature; try a cool bath or shower earlier in the daytime.
  • A full bladder can also trigger night terrors.

If your child has frequent night terrors, you might try the “prompted awakening” technique to readjust your child’s sleep patterns at the time the night terrors usually happen. Prompted awakening techniques include:

  • For several nights, note how many minutes elapse from the time your child falls asleep to the onset of the night terror.
  • Begin awakening your child every night 15 minutes before the expected time of the night terror.
  • Remind your child to "wake up fast." Keep your child fully awake and out of bed for 5 minutes.

Why choose Children’s Hospital Colorado for your child’s night terrors?

Night terrors are rarely, but sometimes, a symptom triggered by medical problems, including a disorder of dream sleep, a seizure or a movement disorder. At Children’s Hospital Colorado, we are experts at diagnosing and treating night terrors, whether they are part of a more complicated sleep disorder or the common condition found in childhood. Often, we can help patients and their families learn to manage common night terrors after a meeting with our sleep psychologist.

At the Children’s Colorado Sleep Center, we have providers known internationally for their expertise in sleep research and sleep treatments. The team is made up of sleep specialists trained in different aspects of sleep treatments, including sleep physicians who specialize in children’s breathing issues and children’s ear-nose-and throat problems, a sleep-specialized psychologist, two sleep-specialized nurse practitioners, a sleep-specialized respiratory therapist and a dedicated sleep nurse.