Night Terrors

By Dr Evelyn Lewin

A night terror is when a sleeping child suddenly displays agitated or distressed behaviour, usually in the form of screaming. While she may look awake, the child is still asleep. For this reason, she is very unlikely to recall the episode after it happens. According to the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne, night terrors occur in approximately five out of every 100 children. Though distressing to witness, night terrors are not a sign of emotional or psychological problems. Night terrors do not cause any long-term harm to your child, and most children grow out of them. There is no known cause for night terrors. They are more common in families with a history of sleep disorders such as sleepwalking. They occur more frequently when children are overtired. See Sleep Problems.


  • Within the first few hours of sleep, when the child is transitioning between sleep cycles, she will startle and may scream, cry or become agitated. She may start running around, or thrash around in her bed.
  • She may look awake, with her eyes open, but she will not recognise you or react to you trying to console her. This is because she is still asleep.
  • During a night terror the child will look scared. She may have a glassy-eyed appearance, where she looks through you, rather than at you.
  • These episodes usually last around ten minutes.


There is no treatment for night terrors. However, it is important to keep your child’s room safe and free of danger, so if she does become active with a night terror she cannot hurt herself. To reduce the chance of your child having another night terror, try not to let her become overtired. Going to bed a little earlier may help. A relaxing bedtime routine may also help. Include wind-down time in the bath, followed by reading soothing books before bed. Avoid violent or aggressive TV shows. While it is tempting to offer comfort, it will not help her and may worsen the episode. Only intervene if you worry she may hurt herself. If you are concerned about your child’s night terrors, speak to your GP for further advice.

Reviewed by Dr Evelyn Lewin 25 February 2015 references
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This document has been developed and peer reviewed by a KIDS HEALTH Advisory Board Representative and is based on expert opinion and the available published literature at the time of review. Information contained in this document is not intended to replace medical advice and any questions regarding a medical diagnosis or treatment should be directed to a medical practitioner.

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