Will Night Terrors Do Lasting Damage To My Preschooler?


My preschooler is having night terrors four or five times per week. Should I worry?

MOLLY: This question came from a mom in Colorado. She added that she has read a lot online about it and they say to just try to keep them safe during the terror but her concern is the frequency.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): Generally speaking, night terrors in children don’t last all that long and there are a couple of things that she’ll want to know about them.

First, eighty percent of kids who have night terrors have a family member who has also experienced them, so it’s possible that there’s a genetic factor involved.

The second is that they happen more frequently when kids are over-tired or stressed or taking a new medication or sleeping away from home.

Now, it’s important to separate out whether these are night terrors or nightmares. You can figure that out by what time of day these occur. Night terrors happen during non-REM sleep, so they would occur in the first half hour to three-and-a-half hours after the child goes to sleep.

Nightmares, on the other hand, occur during REM sleep. Those more commonly happen early in the morning. Generally, when kids have nightmares they can remember bits and parts about them. However, when they have night terrors, they have no memory of them whatsoever.

MOLLY: Is it normal to have four or five incidences every week?

MOM: I think that does sound like a lot, although it varies with each child. If these continue happening repeatedly it might be a good idea to bring the child to a pediatrician to make sure everything’s okay physically. There’s no particular treatment for night terrors, but it’s not a bad idea to make sure there’s nothing going on in the child’s body that could be throwing off her sleep.

The most important thing to remember is not to wake a child during a night terror because she will be even more frightened and disoriented.  Reassure her by putting a gentle hand on her back but don’t wake her, and she should go right back to sleep.

Kids are typically inconsolable during night terrors, though in the morning they have no idea that this happened. If you say, “Oh you seemed to have had a bad dream last night,” they won’t have any idea what you’re talking about . No conscious memory of the experience at all.

From a psychological standpoint, children with night terrors have no increase in psychiatric diagnosis, so having night terrors, even frequent night terrors, doesn’t mean that your kid will  be disturbed or damaged in the long run.

MOLLY: Then is there anything a parent can do to make night terrors end?

MOM: Generally they’ll go away by themselves, but in the meantime it’s always a good idea to make sure that children are getting enough sleep and are not chronically exhausted. Sleep is the time for the brain to rest and the cells to regenerate and grow, so make sure children have an appropriate sleeping environment and go to bed early enough.