What You Don’t Know About Night Terrors Could Scare The Heck Out of You

He shoots up with panic in his eyes, and asks me desperately “Mama what?”

My son has night terrors. He’s had night terrors ever since he was very little. My son has a lot of things that don’t fit into a nice little tiny box wrapped up with a bow.

We began seeing a neurologist for my son’s tic disorder when he was 4. I remember wondering out loud at the time about what was happening to my son at bedtime. This was the routine:

He would go to sleep at 7:30 and sometime around 8:15 he would sit straight up in bed whimpering and rocking. Sometimes talking nonsense sentences.

Sometimes his fear would take him on a search around the house for some unknown intruder or assailant.

Sometimes that intruder or assailant would be out the window.

Never once were his words clear.

I made the mistake when he was younger of trying to talk to him when this was happening. All I got back was nonsense.
“Mommy, mommy, what? What?”
“Mommy, mommy, where?”
“Over there mommy, over there, over there.”
Insistent, determined.
I would ask:
“What baby?”
“Where baby?”
“What do you see?”
All I got was the same questions repeated over and over again, sometimes more insistent. Sometimes the fear in his voice was almost too much to bear. Sometimes he would cry.

You cannot wake up a child who is having a night terror. A night terror is not a nightmare. A night terror only happens during one specific time of sleep.

non-REM sleep

During non-REM sleep you are not dreaming. I repeat, this is the cycle of sleep where there are no dreams. This is also the period of sleep where your limbs are not paralyzed as they are during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This cycle of non-REM sleep always occurs as part of the first hour of sleep. For us, it is always 45 minutes on the dot.

This is not a nightmare because it occurs only during the period of sleep when you are not dreaming.

You cannot comfort a child who is having a night terror, during a night terror the child is completely unaware of his surroundings. However, you should stay with them. Keep them safe. Night terrors and sleep walking often go hand in hand.

Isaiah often has episodes where he is insistent that someone is out in the living room, I follow him there, but I am only a guide, he is not aware of my presence. I can gently steer him where I need him to go, but if I force him to abandon his explorations too soon he will get right out of bed and go look again.

Children do not remember night terrors in the morning. So many times I would ask Isaiah, “So sweetie, do you remember what happened last night?” He would look at me with a blank stare. Eventually I consoled myself by researching and understanding that 1-6% of all children have true night terrors, and that they tend to grow out of it. It is hereditary and another form of sleepwalking. And although it scared the heck out of me, he didn’t remember it, he wasn’t upset, so why should I be so scared for him?

Tonight Isaiah had a night terror, he hasn’t had one in months. It is different from when he wakes up to go to the bathroom. When he has to go to the bathroom he is sleepy, sits up slowly and he rocks back and forth.  Tonight it was different. Tonight he shot up whimpering, “Mama what? Mama what?”
“Do you have to go to the bathroom?”
“Ok, OK”
“Come on baby, come on.” I try to lead him off of the bed, but he is clumsy like he doesn’t know the direction he is going in. When he finally get’s off of the bed he starts walking towards the wrong door. I have learned it’s better to steer him with his shoulders.
When he gets to the bathroom he pulls his pants down, and then turns around the wrong direction again. He is still murmuring, “What? What mama?”
“Come on sweetie.” I guide him to the toilet, he sits down.
When he get’s back up again he pulls his pants up, then pulls them down, then pulls them up, then pulls them down. I finally have to take his hands away and do it myself. Still he is asking, “Mama what?”
If you were there, you would swear he was hearing me say something, something he can’t understand. He is desperately asking me to clarify a question I never asked. This exchange used to break my heart. Now I have replaced that fear with love and empathy.
I tell him, “You’re OK baby, You’re OK.” Repeating it over and over. A soothing mantra that I hope reaches him somewhere. As we head back to bed, he once again starts for the outside door. I steer him, with some difficulty, back to the bed. He is still murmuring. I guide him up and he curls into a ball, I cover him gently all nice and cozy. He is still making small sounds so I rub his back. He quiets, but we have been there before, if I stop too soon he will only get up again. I wait, and rub for 10 minutes more, just to be safe. His breathing slows, he is sleeping deeply again, and I know he won’t be up until morning.

  • I had night terrors as a child. My dad has told me now that I am older that I used to sit straight up, eyes open and I would speak, but almost like the words were gibberish or backwards. They never understood what I was saying and like Isaiah, I never remembered any of this in the morning. I did eventually grew out of it, but I really used to scare my parents something good. My poor dad used to sleep next to me on these nights, because he always wanted to make sure I was ok.ReplyCancel

    • Jennifer Kehl

      Janine, it’s one of the many reasons I still sleep with Isaiah. I worry he will get up and fall down the stairs, or walk outside. I feel for your dad.ReplyCancel

  • Oh, Jen, my friend, we have so much in common! My 6yo daughter has night terrors, and they are the freakiest thing. They started about two years ago ~ I am so glad I teach Psychology and knew what they were, or I would have thought she was having a seizure or was possessed. My daughter’s are also very typical – she has them about 1-1.5 hours into sleep (they are almost always early in the night, the first time they enter deep Stage 4 sleep), and she speaks gibberish, like she’s speaking in tongues or something. Or it’s like you describe with your son, she’ll talk to us, but it makes no sense, she’ll get up and run around her room or our room in some crazy St. Vitus Dance, or she’ll rock back and forth and hit herself… I am certain in a previous century she would have been branded a witch or a victim of demonic possession. And just like you wrote, she has no memory of it in the morning. It only lasts a few minutes but it is so freaky.

    I love your advice…. they can’t really be soothed or comforted, we just need to keep them safe and from hurting themselves. I’ve read that it’s just about their nervous system maturing, and that they will grow out of it (usually by age 8, I’ve read). My daughter tends to have them when she is stressed {she had a lot last year when we moved} or overtired. Having a consistent, early bedtime for her has helped.

    And thanks for clearing up that it is not that they are acting out a dream…. It is so strange that they are in Stage 4 sleep, the deepest stage, yet act so alert….. The brain is a strange thing, no?

    Great post!!ReplyCancel

    • Jennifer Kehl

      Thanks Sarah! For something that supposedly only happen to 6% of the population a lot of people seem to have the same story. I am guessing its underreported. I didn’t want to get into
      The sleep mechanics, but you are right. I imagine its like waking up from the deepest black. Very weird.ReplyCancel

    • Kasandra

      Hi your story and information helped me so much its exactly what my daughter does, its happened twice now, i was so scared and it freaked me out and i didnt no what was going on with her or how i could help her when they where happening now ive read information and you story on night terrors and understand a bit more about it. Thanks for sharing you story it has help me 🙂ReplyCancel

      • Jennifer Kehl

        I am so glad this helped you! I can’t tell you how much I searched for information when it first started happening with Isaiah. I hope this keeps you from being scared when it happens again!ReplyCancel

    • jade morze

      So thankful to hear other moms stories it breaks my heart to see my son do this at night I wanted to put the word out with him washing him down with a cold cloth helps so much hope this helps someone else alsoReplyCancel

  • BOTH of my girls have them, the 3 yr old seems to have either grown out of it, or she’s in remission for lack of a better term. The baby? Scares the living junk out of me. You’re right, there is just NO soothing them. I tried everything from feeding her to singing, rocking, you name it. I have found that sometimes a warm washcloth gently “wakes” her up (sometimes not fully) and distraction work best, books/cartoons/toys, and just waiting it out.
    I hope Isaah grows out of it soon, they don’t remember but it’s SO SCARY to the parents! Great post.ReplyCancel

    • Jennifer Kehl

      Isaiah’s come and go now. When he was younger it was constant. I no longer try to wake him up, I just keep him safe and try to get him back in bed.ReplyCancel

  • My daughter had night terrors when she was younger. She would shriek bloody murder, and there was nothing I could do to console her because she wasn’t aware of my presence. It was terrifying for me. It was also predictable-every night about the same time we would hear the screaming start. Fortunately it never lasted very long!

    My son, interestingly enough, has never had night terrors!ReplyCancel

    • Jennifer Kehl

      I’m glad it’s over for you Sarah. At least Isaiah never screams, but the weird murmuring, a little disconcerting.ReplyCancel

  • Bless his heart. My oldest who has autistic tendencies does that, but luckily they are not terrors. It so strange to witness though, and now that he’s 13, it’s occasionally amusing. We will have to make sure we warn his future wife. 🙂

    I on the other hand lucid dream almost every night, so when they are nightmares – I remain traumatized for almost an hour after waking up until I can convince my brain that it was all just a dream.ReplyCancel

  • My son had night terrors when he was younger – frequently for a month or too, then none for a while, then they would start again. He’ll be 12 tomorrow and hasn’t had them in at least a year. I was nodding my head as I was reading your description – exactly like Isaiah’s. Oddly, we found that sitting him on our bed and turning on ESPN’s Sports Center would slowly bring him out of it, and I could tell the instant he was awake. But he still never remembered anything in the morning. So scary to have your child screaming “Mommy, Mommy!” but look right through you and be deaf to your words.ReplyCancel

  • Jen. Amazing writing. I got goosebumps on top of goosebumps. That’s so scary! And you’re a wonderful mommy.ReplyCancel

    • Jennifer Kehl

      I love you Kristi – Thank you!ReplyCancel

  • “He is desperately asking me to clarify a question I never asked”.

    You are such a sensitive soul and a wonderful mom. He is lucky to have such a tactful and accepting guide. I was never aware of the difference between nightmares and night terrors. This was such an important and touching read for me. I am not sure if I’ve missed that part in your post as I am a little sleep deprived myself, do kids ever grow out of this? I pray that he does.ReplyCancel

  • I second Katia’s first two lines. You are a great mom, and he is a lucky, lucky boy to have you. I didn’t know the different between night terrors and nightmares, so this was a great PSA. It must be so difficult not to be able to do anything about it while it’s happening, even if he doesn’t remember it the next day. Good post.ReplyCancel

  • I suffered for night terrors as a child…. I never realised how horrible it must have Bering for my mom and brother until now… Althought I was 9 when it started, after my best friend drown. But they last about 3 or 4 years.
    I hope your son grows out of his soon!ReplyCancel

  • I had horrific night terrors as a child. My parents were so confused and scared by them. They eventually brought me to the doctor’s. They went away by the time I was reached 7 or 8, I think. I do sort of remember horrific nightmares that I had as a young child, to this day. I think I was traumatized by my grandmother’s death from cancer and from a cousin’s drowning death. My son seems to be picking up a lot of my sleeping habits, and I’m scared that he’ll have night terrors too!ReplyCancel

    • Jennifer Kehl

      Well Jessica, they are hereditary. But remember, nightmares and night terrors are not the same thing. So maybe for you it was just the trauma. Although trauma can cause night terrors, but then you wouldn’t remember them… see the conundrum?ReplyCancel

  • My oldest had night terrors when she was younger. It was hard – I wanted so much to comfort her and and hold her, but as you said, that doesn’t work. She out grew them by the age of six. She actually never walked during a night terror, but now does occasionally sleep walk. I know it’s tough and I hope your son grown out of it, too!ReplyCancel

  • Two of my kids had NT when they were toddlers. So awful. I felt so damn helpless. They did finally grow out of them, but wow. I feel your pain. It’s really awful to watch your kid freak out and know that anything you say or if you try to hold them, they probably think you’re just a monster. It’s scary for them and for US.ReplyCancel

  • Stephanie

    I’m 31 years old and have suffered from night terrors for 5 years. My ex boyfriend said that I would sit up, eyes open and scream on the top of my lungs. The only reason i know something happens is my throat hurts from the screaming. I’ve wokeup with scissors in my hand, knocked a TV on myself and woke up in random pays off my house. I’ve had to tell my neighbors in my apartment so they don’t freak out and call the cops on me. I’ve had sleeping issues for my whole life. I hate going camping, spending the night at friends and hotels. I’ve gone to the doctors, tried antidepressants and nothing had made them go away.ReplyCancel

  • Eric Land

    I had night terrors as a child..I could not remember them as a child.As a adult I remember some..When my folks tried to walk me by speaking I heard panic…it was better for me to just turn the light on an let me just come out of it..I hate it for your son an anyone else who have terrors..you feel,hear,smell,just like you were awake..ReplyCancel

  • Brandt

    Im 17 years old now but i started having these night terrors my mom told me from the age of 5 and the last one i had was when i was 12 years old. In the early years i had them my mom said i would run around the hallway crying and i would eyes wide open. I dont remember them well from when i was little but the older i got i could remember in the middle of my night terrors i would have a short glimps of reality and actually see where i was and who i was talking to. Then i would fall back into my night terror and pace around always looking for my mom. I would cry and speak sentences to family members that made no sense sometimes. I wouldnt recall any memory of what happened when i woke up the next morning. My mom or friends would tell me what happened and days later i could slowly start to rememeber peices of what happened and the dreams i was dreaming at the time. Night terrors for me and probably everyone that has them are the scariest dreams you’ll have, because they seem so real, it really feels like you are fearing and panicing for your life. I would usually have the same dreams more than once. Specifically 3 dreams that i remember. 1 of the scarier ones for me was dreaming that a sudden hate of me from people came about and everyone in the world would be looking for me and wanting to hurt me, i would look for my mom because i knew she was the only one to help calm me down and comfort me. I would still be dreaming, screaming, and crying and in the dream i would feel extreme pressure against me as if walls were closing in and that the people found me, i had to accept that there wasnt any escape from it. And after a few minutes id calm down and fall back to sleep. Remembering nothing later on. My last one happened when i was 12 sleeping over at a friends house. This has to be the creepiest one although i still dont recall what i was dreaming. We stayed up late and i fell asleep first. Keep in mind that im asleep this entire time. My friend said it started out like this. He said i just got up and went to the bathroom. He was still watching tv and he said when i got out i was just standing at the door looking at him as the panic started to increase. He said i asked where my mom was and he said he didnt know. Then i asked again but i yelled it. He started to get scared probably 1 because its not easy watching them and 2 he doesnt know about them. He said i was pacing around really fast and started screaming. I then went to the front door and was yelling because it was locked and i couldnt open it. He lived only a couple blocks away. But he got scared so he opened it for me, i then took off running home and crying. The only parts i remember was suddenly running down the sidewalk and knocking on my door frantically at probably 7. My mom answered as i was crying and started to realize what was happening. I calmed down and fell asleep on our couch. I woke up later and was very confused why i was home and on the couch then my mom told me i had a night terror and ran home. Then i went to my friends again to tell him what happened and apologized for scaring him haha. Im glad they are over but my little brother now has them and im glad i can understand them, what they are, and how to help. He sleeps in my room so i can wake up and help him when they happen. I seem to have a natural alarm for when i first hear him cry. He seems to seek my mom too in the middle of them so i walk him to her room and it evetually stops minutes later. Some are more intense than others and some can be funny for the confusing things they say but dont laugh at them because its very serious and feels life threatning for them. Like one time my mom told me i told her i didn’t want to be her boyfriend. Which is weird. And my brother telling me to go catch the red dinosaur in the kitchen. But just aid them around in what they feel will help them but keep them safe. Im glad i have an understanding of them so i can help my brother in his.ReplyCancel

    • Jennifer Kehl

      Wow! Thank you so much for sharing this with us! It is great that you can help your brother understand! It was really scary for me when my son first started having them. Sometimes it still is even though I know what it is. Its really important that we all share our stories so other people can find them and understand too!ReplyCancel

  • Rhonda

    My daughter began having NT at around age 2 or 3 years old… She is 16 now and her last NT was at age 10. Her NTs would last for about 30 to 45 minutes and only subsided when she would calm back down enough to fall back into the correct subconsciousness of normal sleep. At the height of her NTs, she might have up to 3 a week, and this was around age 7. She would be crying and begging for my help…I couldn’t understand most of the things she said, but many times she would cry “Mama help me, help me”. She would be walking around the house looking very paranoid and acting as though something was chasing her..when I would try to comfort her, nothing worked and she appeared to be looking at something around me that I couldn’t see..even giving her a bath wouldn’t wake her up…the only thing I could do was hold her until she became still & quiet.. the longest NT episode she ever had was on an occasion that lasted about an hour. She is my third child, had colic as a baby, and was breech…I don’t know if that is a common thing among kids who experience NTs or not but I thought I would put that out there in case some of those same factors might be true for others.ReplyCancel

    • Jennifer Kehl

      Thanks so much for commenting Rhonda! That seems like exactly what we went through as well!ReplyCancel

  • Tony

    Hello there – Night terrors, never even heard of them until last week when my 13 yr old son had an episode. I’m reaching out to anyone who can please,please give me some advice as I’m having a really hard time coping with the incident. It happened twice in one night!!! Not knowing what was going on, I called for an ambulance when the 2nd occurrence began. I probably made things worse, but I had no clue what was going on. I’ll give a brief description of what occurred, he got up screaming, pounding his bed and kicking the wall, yelling “daddy, daddy” and some other words I couldn’t make out! He appeared to be staring at something,(note, by this time I’m freaking out)I hugged him and kept telling him “your okay, your okay” but nothing seemed to help. He awoke from the night terror on his way to the hospital, he had no clue what had happened,(freaked me out even more). When we arrived at the emergency room and I explained what happened to the doctor she calmly said “from what your describing it sounds like a night terror.” The experience has left me traumatized, I don’t let him sleep alone and I noticed that I have become very observant of him. I have millions of thoughts going through my mind, I think I’ve been more affected by these occurrences than him.
    I will add that my son has a learning disability and is also ADHD. There was a change in his medication, prior to the episodes (change, in manufacture of medicine) and the pills had a different color, must say, when I noticed the color on the pills I questioned it and did not feel comfortable giving it to him so I only gave him a few! I returned the pills to the pharmacy (after the episodes)and received new ones, the same manufacture he’s always taken! I’m hoping that by sharing my experience I can receive some good explanations because the incident has left me marked.ReplyCancel

  • Virginia

    I had night terrors and my mom said the only thing that would stop me was speaking firmly to me and telling me to stop and to go back to bed with strong authority. If she tried to console me it got worse. Mine were severe. I would scream in gibberish langue and run around. One time I was just punching the end of my mother’s bed.
    So commanding me to stop and telling me to go to bed worked. I wouldn’t wake up – I would just go back to bed and not remember anything.ReplyCancel

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