Question: Our toddler suffers from "night terrors." He wanders into our room in the middle of the night screaming, moaning, thrashing wildly and jabbering incoherently. When we try to comfort him, he doesn’t seem to know us and tries to push us away. How do we handle these outbursts?


Night terrors are extremely unpleasant events which affect two to four per cent of children (more commonly boys) during the toddler to preschool years. They tend to run in families, and the first episode generally occurs sometime between the ages of two and four years. What is especially unsettling about a night terror is that your child typically won’t respond to you when you try to speak to him. As a matter of fact, he may not even seem to know you, and there is a chance that he will begin to thrash even more violently and try to push you away when you attempt to calm him. It’s no wonder many parents and siblings find these incidents extremely disturbing. 

Be a reassuring presence

Your job during a night terror is to sit tight through the seemingly interminable 10- to 30-minute ordeal. Hold your child if he’ll let you. Provide soothing reassurances that you’re there and that he’s okay. Most importantly, do everything you can to prevent him from hurting himself. You may also need to calm any other children in the household who have been awakened by the commotion and are witnessing this wild event. Don’t leave the child alone, because there is a very real risk of injury, and don’t try to wake him. A child in the midst of a night terror is experiencing a disordered arousal from deep (non-REM) sleep. He is actually in a state of sleep that does not readily progress to wakefulness, and shaking or speaking forcefully to him ("Wake up! Wake up!") will only compound his (and your) agitation. What’s more, if you succeed in bringing him to full consciousness, he will be unhappy and irritable and may have difficulty going back to sleep.

Wait it out and see

If, on the other hand, you remain calm and wait it out, you’ll be surprised how quickly the night terror ends once it has run its course. In most cases, the child will suddenly relapse into sleep, and in the morning he will have no memory of the previous night’s uproar. You, on the other hand, may go back to bed and find yourself staring at the ceiling for a while until your adrenaline surge subsides.

Excerpted from Complete Guide to Baby and Child Care published by Tyndale House Publishers. © 1997, 2007 Focus on the Family. Used by permission.

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