Screams in the Night

“The stars on high are shining bright-

Sweet dreams, my darling, sleep well…good night!”

Author: Mem Fox from the book Time for Bed


The house is quiet.  The kids are sleeping soundly in their beds.  Well, actually my daughter is sleeping in my bed.  I need to be honest.  This has become a nightly ritual, but that can be saved for another post…

It is an hour past my usual bedtime.  I started watching a scary movie on television.  Not a smart move on my part.  After drifting off, an hour goes by of peaceful sleep.  Suddenly, I hear a sound and believe someone has broken into my window.  Panic sets in and radiates throughout my body.  Getting out of the room is the only option.  Somehow I run in the pitch dark room, throwing my blankets onto the floor and smacking my arm on the nightstand.  Now I am awake and standing in the hallway.  My heart is racing so fast.  Am I having a heart attack?  The episode feels like an eternity, but has only lasted a few minutes.  My throat hurts from screaming.  As I walk back into the room, my scared daughter has no idea what happened.  Two words.  Night terror.

My recent night terror was unexpected because I have not experienced one for years.  They began in childhood and became more frequent during college.  My college roommates must have loved me!  The change in sleep patterns of college life may have caused them to occur.  Staying up late and not enough sleep.  They also happened during times of emotional stress; for example, after the death of my grandfather.  During a psychology class in college, I realized my screaming episodes were actually night terrors.   We were learning the criteria for various sleep disorders.  I did not meet the criteria for a “disorder” because they occurred infrequently and were not interfering significantly with my life.  However, I did feel relieved to know there was a name for these episodes.

The following are a few suggestions to help a child who experiences night terrors:

1.  Keep a written diary of the dates the night terrors occur.  Write any details that stand out.  For example, if your child went to sleep later than the usual bedtime.  A diary may provide a pattern and will be helpful if you need to speak to the pediatrician.

2.  Remove any toys on the floor in your child’s room, in case he or she gets out of bed during a night terror.  (I would jump out of bed and run into the hallway!)

3.  Don’t try to wake up the child during an episode.   Night terrors only last a few minutes and children usually do not remember the next morning.  Night terrors are more frightening to the parent.  Trying to wake up the child can further agitate him or her.  In addition, it might take longer for the child to fall back asleep.

4.  Reassure the child that he or she is safe after the night terror.   You may need to sit with your child for a few minutes.

5.  Encourage your child to discuss his or her feelings during the day.  If your child is dealing with a loss, contact the school counselor to inquire of any support offered in the school or community.

6.  Establish a relaxing bedtime routine.  Give your child enough rest time during the day.  Try to put your child to bed at the same time every night.

7.  If  the night terrors become more frequent, look at your written diary to see if there is a pattern.  If your child wakes up at the same time, set an alarm to 15 minutes before they occur.  Wake up your child for a few minutes.  This may prevent the night terror.  (My night terrors always occur 30 minutes after I fall asleep.)

Do you have any strategies that have worked with a child who has night terrors?  Please share your ideas.

Night terrors appear to be a frightening experience, but remember the child usually has no recollection in the morning.  They are more frightening to others who witness the night terror.  (My husband and daughter would agree!)  Night terrors typically end by adolescence.  (Unfortunately, not for me!)


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