"Does my child have night terrors?" and other FAQs from Parents

They say knowledge is power, and we think that’s definitely true if you're the parent of a child with night terrors. But here’s the thing—knowing that your family isn’t the only one dealing with night terrors can be just as empowering as knowing more about the condition itself. Below are some of the common questions we get from parents like you, with answers from our staff physicians that represent the most updated medical data available. Feel free to email us at support@lullysleep.com or visit our Help Center if you have more questions!

My daughter sometimes wakes up screaming or crying at night. She seems to be awake but she can’t be consoled. Does she have night terrors?

First of all, we’re so sorry you’ve been facing such a stressful situation! What you describe might be night terrors (also known as sleep terrors), a condition where a child is suddenly roused from deep sleep and appears to be extremely scared or upset. Sometimes night terrors are partnered with sleepwalking or movement, like if the child sits up, kicks, flails their arms, or gets out of bed. The catch is, although your child may open her eyes, scream, and move around, she isn’t actually awake—you may even notice that your daughter looks right through you if you try to comfort her. Night terrors can last a few seconds, a few minutes, or even a half an hour and they can occur nightly. They also have a tendency to run in families. If this sounds like what your daughter has been experiencing, a sit-down with her doctor may be helpful.

What’s the difference between night terrors and nightmares?

Night terrors and nightmares may seem really similar but they are in fact quite different. Most parents have probably talked their child down from a scary nightmare, but night terrors make it almost impossible to comfort your child, no matter what you try. That’s because nightmares signal dreaming, while night terrors do not. This means that your child may remember their nightmare, just like some of us remember our dreams. If you manage to wake your child from a nightmare, they may be upset or scared but they’ll recognize you and breathe a little easier knowing that Mom or Dad is around. With night terrors, your child is not dreaming and generally won’t remember the episode the next day. It is very difficult to wake them from a night terror and they don’t respond rationally if you try. Another factor to keep in mind is timing: nightmares usually occur in the last half of the night, while sleep terrors occur in the first half, often 2-3 hours after falling asleep.

Are everyone else’s children getting a normal night’s sleep? Do other parents have to deal with night terrors?

Never fear—you’re definitely not the only parent whose child experiences night terrors. Actually, it is estimated that sleep disorders like sleepwalking and night terrors affect 20-30% of young children. And night terrors may be even more common than we think, as the condition is often underreported or mistaken for nightmares.

When my child experiences a night terror, what should I do?

We know this is a hard one, but the most important thing is to let the episode run its course. Do not try to wake your child up and force physical contact—too much interference can drag out the length of the night terror and, unfortunately, a child in the middle of a night terror can’t really be calmed down. Just make sure your child is safe (especially if they are moving or trying to get out of bed) and wait for the storm to pass.

Are there options available for treating night terrors?

Yes, and they include things like sleep management, lifestyle changes, home remedies, medication, and surgery for related conditions. Of course, there are things you should know about all these options—medication, for example, is only prescribed in extreme cases where night terrors are very frequent or dangerous to the child. One very successful night terror treatment is called scheduled awakenings, which involves waking your child 15-30 minutes before the night terror typically occurs. Clinical studies starting back in 1988 have shown that scheduled awakenings can completely stop night terrors—which is why it’s the method that inspired our Lully Night Guardian.

Will night terrors hurt my child?

Believe it or not, night terrors are considered “benign” conditions; they do not have any harmful impact on the child experiencing them. But as you probably know, there is a very real and negative effect for the parents of children with night terrors. Many parents develop altered sleep habits themselves and are left with a lot of stress about their child’s well-being. This can have severe effects on a parent’s quality of life (after all, constant worrying on too-little sleep is never a recipe for happiness). That’s why addressing night terrors can be just as much of a relief for the parents as it is for the child experiencing them.

Is there something I did to cause my child’s night terrors?

A lot of parents worry that they’re somehow to blame for their child’s night terrors—and that fear can make them hesitant to bring up the problem with friends or their pediatrician. We hope this will take one concern off your plate: Parents should know that they have not done anything wrong to cause their children’s night terrors and there are plenty of families going through the same thing. There is no single be-all and end-all cause for night terrors, though sleep deprivation, stress, lights or noise, an overfull bladder, or related medical conditions like sleep apnea can all play a role. Even genetics may factor into night terrors, since the condition can run in families. So don’t be afraid to share what you’re going through. You didn’t cause your child’s night terrors, but there are things you can do to help reduce their frequency and improve your child’s sleep.

We know being the parent of a child with night terrors comes with it’s fair share of concerns. But by asking questions and learning more about night terrors, you’re well on your way to reducing some of that stress. Be sure to let us know if we can help you out in any other way!