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How should we deal with our son’s “night terrors”?
Q: My 2-year-old woke up the other night crying hysterically. He was standing up in his cot with his eyes wide open, pointing to the corner and crying. He looked like he was awake, but he wouldn’t respond to me or my wife, and we couldn’t calm him down for 30 minutes. The doctor said this was a “night terror.” What causes night terrors and what can we do?
A: Ken, it can be very upsetting for parents to watch their child have a night terror because your child appears so distressed. If it’s any consolation, though, your son won’t remember the night terror, and it is rarely a sign of a serious problem.

Night terrors are most common from 2 to 6 years of age. They are part of the deepest, non-dreaming stage of sleep that usually occurs within an hour of falling asleep. The typical characteristics of night terrors are:

  • Your child has his eyes wide open with a terrified look.

  • He may be crying, screaming, shaking, or thrashing around.

  • He may not appear to recognize or respond to you.

  • He may try to push you away when you try to comfort or restrain him.


  • Night terrors usually last from 5-45 minutes. Afterwards, your child will calm down and return to sleeping quietly. But even though your child appeared to be awake during the night terror, he was actually asleep the whole time. That is why he did not seem to recognize or respond to you during the episode.

    Here are the recommendations for how to deal with your child’s night terrors:
  • Try to remain calm.

  • Keep the lights dim, talk quietly, try to comfort your child, and stay with him until he settles back to sleep.

  • Don’t shake your child, try to awaken him, or question him.

  • Protect your child from injuring himself.


  • Night terrors tend to occur when your child is stressed or overtired. Try to keep your child on a routine for naps and night-time sleeping. Consider putting him to bed a little earlier to see if it helps. If there have been any other major changes in your child’s life (e.g., a new baby sibling, a new caregiver, moving homes, divorce), be sure to give him extra comfort during this time.

    Your child might have only this one episode or he may have repeated night terrors. If you have concerns about his night terrors, be sure to discuss this with his doctor.

Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician