Night terrors

By Medically reviewed by hellodoktor


What are night terrors?

Night terrors are considered as a form of sleep disorder in which a person partially awakens from sleep in a state of terror. A sufferer of night terrors experiences an activation of his or her fight-or-flight system. Children might sit up crying or screaming. Night terrors usually occur during the deepest stage of sleep, which is typically the first half of the sleep cycle. Night terrors are not nightmares, which are a form of dreaming. Because the person may still be partially asleep during a night terror, they can be inconsolable and unaware of their surroundings. They may have no memory of the episode when they awaken.

How common are night terrors?

Night terrors are relatively uncommon and predominantly affect children under the age of 12. Children typically grow out of night terrors. Children with night terrors often also sleepwalk. Night terrors affect as many as 6.5 percent of children and 2.2 percent of adults. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.


What are the symptoms of night terrors?

The common symptoms of night terrors are:

  • Sit up in bed
  • Scream or shout
  • Kick and thrash
  • Sweat, breathe heavily and have a racing pulse
  • Be hard to awaken, but if awakened be confused
  • Be inconsolable
  • Stare wide-eyed
  • Get out of bed and run around the house
  • Engage in aggressive behavior (more common in adults)

There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consulting with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.


What causes night terrors?

Number of factors can lead to sleep terrors, such as:

  • Sleep deprivation and extreme tiredness
  • Stress
  • Fever (in children)
  • Sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings
  • Lights or noise
  • An overfull bladder

Sleep terrors sometimes are associated with underlying conditions that affect sleep, such as:

  • Sleep-disordered breathing — a group of disorders characterized by abnormal breathing patterns during sleep, the most common of which is obstructive sleep apnea
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Migraines
  • Head injuries
  • Some medications

Risk factors

What increases my risk for night terrors?

There are many risk factors for night terrors, such as:

  • A family history of night terrors
  • A history of depressive or anxiety disorders

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How are night terrors diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects that you may experience this condition, a physical examination will be performed and some tests will be also recommended by your doctor. Sleep study is considered as the most useful test that enables your doctor to determine night terrors.

A sleep study (polysomnography) is a test used to diagnose underlying sleep disorders, such as obstructive sleep apnea, that may trigger sleep terrors. To participate in the polysomnography, you’ll spend the night in a sleep lab.

During the test, sensors are placed on your head and body to record your brain waves, blood oxygen level, heart rate and breathing, as well as eye and leg movements. A video camera records your sleep. Your doctor will review the information to determine whether you or your child has a sleep disorder.

How are night terrors treated?

During your child’s sleep terror, simply wait it out. It may be distressing to watch, but it does not harm the child. You might gently restrain your child and try to get him or her back into bed. Speak softly and calmly. Shaking your child or shouting may make things worse. Usually the episode will eventually stop on its own.

Treatment may be needed if the sleep terrors cause significant disruption or problems with daytime function or threaten safety. Treatment options include:

Treating an underlying condition

If the sleep terrors are associated with an underlying medical or mental health condition or another sleep disorder, such as obstructive sleep apnea, treatment is aimed at the underlying problem.

Improving sleep habits

Addressing issues such as too little sleep may help reduce the incidence of sleep terrors.

Addressing stress

If stress or anxiety seems to be contributing to the sleep terrors, your doctor may suggest meeting with a therapist or counselor. Cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis, biofeedback and relaxation therapy may help.


Medication is rarely used to treat sleep terrors, particularly for children. If necessary, however, use of benzodiazepines may be effective.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage night terrors?

The following lifestyles and home remedies might help you cope with night terrors:

Make the environment safe

To help prevent injury, close and lock all windows and exterior doors at night. You might even lock interior doors or place alarms or bells on the doors.

Get more sleep

Fatigue can contribute to sleep terrors. If you are sleep deprived, try an earlier bedtime and a more regular sleep schedule. Sometimes a short nap may help.

Establish a regular, relaxing routine before bedtime

Do quiet, calming activities, such as reading books, doing puzzles or soaking in a warm bath, before bed. Meditation or relaxation exercises may help, too.

Put stress in its place

Identify the things that stress you out, and brainstorm possible ways to handle the stress. If your child seems anxious or stressed, talk about what’s bothering him or her.

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Review Date: August 23, 2017 | Last Modified: September 13, 2019

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