Q: Our daughter, 3, is waking up terrified in the middle of the night. Help!
A: Night terrors are sleep disruptions that typically occur a few hours after kids fall asleep during transitions between sleep phases.
This is different than nightmares, which arise during the dream stages of sleep, late into the night or in the early morning hours.
These episodes of night terrors can look and sound very frightening for parents, but kids don’t have any recollection of these events.
At the time, children can look truly distressed with elevated heart rates and breathing rates.
Kids may be kicking, screaming and even hysterically crying. Generally, during night terrors, kids are difficult to console. They may not seem to recognize parents or calm down when held.
Eventually, after several minutes of the night terror, kids will fall back asleep. Just like children who sleepwalk, keeping kids safe during their sleep disruption and guiding them back to sleep — without purpose- fully waking them up — is the most successful strategy.
Night terrors affect about 5 percent of children between the ages of 4 and 12.
Stress and being overtired may predispose kids to night terrors, so helping kids gracefully manage stress — and helping them stick to bedtime routines that offer sufficient rest — can help decrease the risk of night terrors.
Dr. Gigi Chawla is a board-certified pediatrician and the senior medical director of primary care at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.