What are night terrors?
Night terrors. What are they and what do you do about them? I'm Dr. Alan Greene and want to discuss this common childhood issue with you called night terrors, or sometimes confusional arousals in some of the parenting books. What happens is a young child sometime shortly after bedtime will sit upright, open their eyes, start screaming, not recognize their parents, and seem extraordinarily frightened. What's going on?
Well it turns out that they are not having a nightmare. They're not actually afraid of anything conscious that they can remember. And they're not awake. They're actually stuck between different stages of sleep and have this big adrenaline rush that is causing all of these behaviors that with no conscious thought going with it at all.
Now the typical idea of what you should do during a night terror, confusional arousal, is perhaps hug the child. But sometimes it will make it even worse. My wife Cheryl came up with an idea for treating night terrors that I absolutely love. I've now heard from thousands of people that have tried it and it's the most effective thing I've ever come across. She reasoned that because night terrors happen at the same age where kids are learning to get this feeling of a full bladder up to their brains to wake them up, maybe it's a partial signal the bladder's full and not quite enough to wake them up. But it's enough to disrupt their sleep.
So she suggested taking a child, this happened with my youngest son, take them into the bathroom and see if they'll go to the bathroom. So he woke up screaming. We were feeling bad about his screaming. Walked him into the bathroom. He didn't recognize us. He was screaming, eyes open, but he did for some reason recognize the toilet and went and immediately was calm again. So we shared this with friends. We shared this with people online. Thousands of people have tried it. And for many, many children, that does indeed appear to be the cause and by far the most effective thing I've seen.
You can also sometimes help by making bedtime and wake up time the same every day by keeping it very calm and the last hour before bed, maybe even a warm bath. And you can sort of do trial and error to what actually calms you child during a specific night terror.
- Last Reviewed on 09/18/2011
- David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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This page was last updated: May 8, 2013