Inside: 13 effective tips to stop night terrors in children (from a mom who has been through it all!)
I think you’ll agree with me when I say:
It’s GUT-WRENCHING to witness your child having a night terror and being completely unable to do anything to STOP it.
Well, it turns out, there are a few things you can do to minimize and reduce the severity and frequency of night terrors. And I know this because I’ve just gone through this experience with my four-year-old son.
And in today’s post, I’m going to explain exactly what night terrors are…and show you exactly HOW you can minimize them.
Let’s get to it, shall we?
On a personal note: My son has high functioning autism, and I naively thought that nothing surprised me anymore regarding abnormal behaviors. But, on the first night I witnessed my son’s first sleep terror, I was in shock.
After the episode subsided and my son was back sleeping peacefully, I laid wide-eyed in bed feeling shaken up and assaulted.
So when you can’t sleep what do you do?
I wasn’t even sure what to type into the search bar — child freaking out at night, child acting possessed in sleep, child has a temper tantrum in his sleep.
For any parent who has experienced night terrors and according to my pediatrician MANY kids do, you know exactly how alarming they are and exactly how helpless you feel.
Stop the car for a second, but why don’t moms ever talk about these things? I’d never heard of sleep terrors until my son started having them, and I soon learned 3 mom friends of mine had kids who also suffered. Us moms need to lean on each for moral support. Let’s start talking (and I wrote an entire post about how we need to stop pretending everything is perfect all the time).
Okay, so now that I’ve gotten that off my chest:
Table of Contents
- What are Night Terrors?
- 13 Tips to Stop Night Terrors in Children – NOW
- 1. See your pediatrician – tonsils, adenoids, sleep apnea.
- 2. Dehydration
- 3. Sickness
- 4. Omega 3’s
- 5. Probiotics
- 6. Reduce Dairy at Bedtime
- 7. Partial arousal
- 8. Keep a cool room
- 9. Get more sleep
- 10. Consistent bedtime routine
- 11. Reduce stress – try mindfulness
- 12. Keep a log
- 13. Magnesium
- And my bonus tips is this:
- Stay calm. Perhaps practice a little self-help yourself.
What are Night Terrors?
According to the mayo clinc:
“Sleep terrors are episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep. Also known as night terrors, sleep terrors often are paired with sleepwalking. Like sleepwalking, sleep terrors are considered a parasomnia — an undesired occurrence during sleep. A sleep terror episode usually lasts from seconds to a few minutes, but episodes may last longer.”
In my late-night research, I also learned that there is a difference between true night terrors and what many kids actually experience, which are called confusional arousals.
Confusional arousals are actually quite common, as many as 15% of toddler experience them. You can usually tell a confusional arousal because it occurs in the first third of the night and the child usually doesn’t get up out of bed or move around.
True sleep terrors are a much more intense form of a partial arousal. Experts suggest they are considerably less common and only occur in about 1% of the population. True night terrors present as the child sitting upright, screaming, leaping out of bed, running blindly around, even breaking windows and trying to escape the house.
This sends shivers up my spine.
My child’s sleep episodes were much less dramatic, but still bad enough, he would often get out of bed, scream, cry, become aggressive and the more I tried to console him the more he cried.
Symptoms of Night Terrors
Sleep terrors are much different from nightmares. When someone is dreaming you can easily arise them and they might even remember their dreams. With night terrors, kids don’t usually remember anything about their paranormal party the night before.
During a sleep terror episode, your child may:
• Moan and thrash in bed
• Sit up and appear frightened
• Stare wide-eyed
• Sweat, breathe heavily, and have a racing pulse, flushed face and dilated pupils
• Kick and thrash
• Be hard to awaken, and be confused if awakened
• Be inconsolable
• Have no or little memory of the event the next morning
• Possibly, get out of bed and run around the house or have aggressive behavior if blocked or restrained
Causes of Sleep Terrors
Sleep experts suggest that there are various factors that contribute to sleep terrors, such as:
• Stress or recent schedule changes (travel, school, new baby)
And according to pediatricians, there is no quick fix for sleep terrors. Usually time and a dose of big capital P. (Patience).
I tried many different tactics to reduce my son’s night terrors and these 13 things combined have drastically helped.
There is hope because at the time of writing this post we haven’t had a night terror in almost two months. (Knock on wood).
Before I get to it below, I just want to say:
If your child is having a night terror: DO NOT TRY TO WAKE THEM UP!
This will only prolong the occurrence and severity of the episode. Stick close by so you can prevent your child from hurting themselves, but don’t touch or try to console them. (As hard as it is to sit idly by, it’s what you must do).
13 Tips to Stop Night Terrors in Children – NOW
1. See your pediatrician – tonsils, adenoids, sleep apnea.
First off, if your child is having sleep terrors, be sure to make an appointment with your pediatrician. Your child could be suffering from enlarged tonsils or adenoids, or even have sleep apnea.
Your doctor can do the appropriate tests and rule out any of the above.
My son had his tonsils and adenoids removed (when he was three) because they were huge and were obstructing his sleep. Since the surgery, he is sleeping more soundly, but unfortunately, it didn’t solve our night terror issue.
But, make the call and get the appointment scheduled because it could be the answer for you.
The first thing I noticed every night my child had a sleep terror was this:
When the episode subsided, he always reached for his water and literally chugged it. And I mean chugged it, like he’d just spent a week in the desert.
I started to wonder if there was a correlation between dehydration and night terrors.
My son rarely drinks, and since he started JK I don’t have any control over his water intake AND his night terrors starting shortly after he started JK.
So here’s what I did:
I started pumping more water into him. We turn it into a fun game of drinking contests, and he definitely doesn’t get dessert until his water is finished.
Now I have no scientific evidence to back this up, but since upping his water intake, I’d say we’ve seen a drastic improvement in the night terror department.
This might be a no brainer, but if your child is sick, you might be up the river without a paddle.
If your child has a fever, give them Advil or Tylenol to break it. Fevers are the one thing doctors claim is a potential cause of night terrors.
4. Omega 3’s
Omega 3’s promote general well-being, immune system support, strong bones and teeth, childhood learning, brain, and eye development.
Omega’s are a brain vitamin, and they also reduce anxiety and stabilize mood.
There are so many benefits (outside of night terror prevention) that it’s one supplement I say is a must-have for your kids.
Doctors also suggest that most of the population is not getting enough Omega’s through diet alone.
Along with all the other tips listed here, I started my son on an Omega supplement. I can’t say if it’s what stopped his night terrors, but I do know that it’s been good for him regardless.
This is the exact brand of omega I use for my son. It tastes like bubble gum. He gets one teaspoon a day.
I don’t want to get into the prebiotic debate.
Probiotics are another change we made recently. I’m giving my son one a day (in a chewable form).
This is the probiotic we use.
6. Reduce Dairy at Bedtime
My son usually has a glass of milk at bedtime. And I’ve noticed if we skip the milk, he seems to sleep more soundly.
Here’s what I’ve done:
I’ve been giving my son his milk earlier in the day (he does love his milk) and giving him water at bedtime.
This simple change has improved his restlessness during the night. Less waking’s, and even fewer nightmares.
When you purchase this Anxiety Kit for Kids, you’ll help your kids calm down, make better choices, and learn positive coping strategies. This is the PERFECT resource (70+ PAGES) for children ages 3 to 10 who suffer from anxiety, anger, or BIG emotions.
7. Partial arousal
I kept a log of my son’s night terrors to enable me to pinpoint correlations.
The sleep terrors were usually happening either 2 hours after going to bed or 4 hours after. So the incident would start either around 10 o’clock or midnight.
I always peak in on my son before I go to bed, of course, because it’s hands down the best moment of my day. He’s so peaceful and my heart melts. But recently during my nightly check-in, I’ve been ever-so-slightly arousing him. Not enough that he wakes up, but enough that he rolls over and groans a little.
And you might be wondering, “Why would you do this?”
My pediatrician said that if you can partially arouse your kids before they switch sleep cycles (before the night terror happens), it can help them NOT get stuck in between sleep cycles because that’s what’s to blame for these horrible sleep terrors.
8. Keep a cool room
I love a warm, warm household, but recently I’ve turned down the heat and I’ve found my son sleeps more soundly (and actually, I do too).
9. Get more sleep
It’s like the saying, nothing good happens after midnight, well, the same goes for your toddler, no good behavior can come from a toddler awake after 8 o’clock.
Doctors suggest that an over-tired kid is more likely to experience a night terror.
So what’s the bottom line?
Put the kids to bed earlier.
I put my son to bed at 7 o’clock instead of 7:30 (because you know 7 o’clock somehow always turns into 8 o’clock before he’s ACTUALLY sleeping.)
The more sleep he gets, the better he sleeps.
10. Consistent bedtime routine
Bedtime is consistent every night in my household. Even on weekends.
I know, I know, I’m no fun. I’m a drill sergeant about bedtime.
We have a routine:
Cartoon, teeth, snack (if he wants one), stories, a mindfulness game and of course lots of hugs and kisses.
If you want to try the exact mindfulness activities I do with my son at bedtime check out Mighty Mindful Kids here. My favorite exercise for bedtime is the starfish fingers one or bedtime well wishes.
It’s important to calm kid’s bodies down so that they can sleep peacefully. Have you ever went to bed super stressed and noticed that when you wake up you still feed tired and tense? Helping kids relax and unwind before sleep is very important.
I also attempt never let my son go to bed angry (not always possible, but I give it my best shot.)
11. Reduce stress – try mindfulness
Not only do I try to calm my child down at bedtime, but we incorporate mindfulness all through our days and you can read here about why mindfulness is so important for kids.
I’ve been practising mindfulness with my son for over a year now and although he is still busy, spirited and emotional, I can see him learning how to calm down and gaining some awareness of his thoughts.
Sometimes I catch him counting to ten and taking deep breaths when he’s frustrated.
It shows my hard work is paying off.
You might be wondering what this has to do with night terrors?
A clear mind translates into better sleep habits for our little ones.
If you’d like to give it a try, Mindfulmazing has put together an eBook called Mighty Mindful Kids and it includes 40 of the best step-by-step, easy mindfulness exercises you can start right now! See what the hype is all about here.
12. Keep a log
A log will help you see what’s working, what your child’s triggers are and help you figure out what you need to tweak or change.
It was a big help for me to figure out what time my son was waking, the nights he had dairy and any changes in his routine.
Okay, I want to shout this one from the rooftops!
Magnesium. Magnesium. Magnesium.
It’s my secret sauce for so many things.
When my son was having pooping issues, we gave him magnesium, when he was having sleep issues, magnesium, When he’s agitated, magnesium.
The exact brand I use is magnesium calm for kids. It’s super sour stuff so to mask the sourness I mix half a tablespoon in with some grape juice.
It’s a miracle supplement. Seriously. I started taking it too, they have an adult version. Try it. This is one place you can’t go wrong.
And my bonus tips is this:
Stay calm. Perhaps practice a little self-help yourself.
And no matter what, try to stop worrying.
The night terrors are harder on you than they are on your child.
If you are struggling to stay calm, (and during the peak of our night terrors I was a bit of a basket case) consider using a worry journal. A worry journal is a proven cognitive behavior strategy to significantly ease stress and anxiety.
Try this three-month guided journal, it will take you on a journey — a pleasant journey to get your worries and stress under control. I’ve completed the entire three months, and it was VERY beneficial in reducing my stress and clearing my head.
If worry isn’t your struggle, but you’d like a little more balance, check out our other free resources available. We have many free printables for you to learn how to calm down and practice mindfulness yourself. I’m sure there is something here to help you. Don’t forget about you momma!
There you have it 13 tips that have virtually reduced our night terrors to NIL. While there might not be a “cure” for these horrible parasomnia’s, there are ways to reduce them.
Take back control of the night.
Good luck, and if you have any questions, please comment below, I’d be happy to answer.
Tina Williamson is the writer and founder of Mindfulmazing, a peaceful parenting blog that guides busy moms and dads to tune into what matters most, and, ultimately, create a happy life! Tina shares strategies and advice for raising responsible, mindful, and resilient kids.
In 2019, Tina created the popular eBook, “Mighty Mindful Kids,” a mindfulness activity book that helps kids with focus, emotional regulation, awareness, and connection. This helped so many families (including her own) that she created several printable resources for parents, teachers, and therapists.
Stay tuned for Tina’s Amazing Me Growth Mindset Journal for Kids being published in the spring of 2021.