Avoid poor sleep due to night terrors in babies

Latest update: March 3, 2019

Author: Heidi Holvoet, PhD
Medical fact-check: Dr Leah Alexander, M.D., F.A.A.P.

Dreams - Nightmares - Night Terrors

A night terror, also called confusional arousal or sleep terror, is not a dream. It is a state, how a baby or child feels and reacts when waking up from a deep sleep. This makes it very different from a nightmare.

Confusional arousal is usually harmless and does not disturb baby much. But it may be frightening for you and disrupt naps and nights. Good to note also that these are not seizures.

Surprised baby

More common from 4 years and up, night terrors can happen from the age of 18 months old and some parents of even younger babies have reported them too, though they've not necessarily been medically verified. If you'd like to read more about night terrors, have a look at this article and this one.

How to recognize night terrors

Sleep terrors happen a couple of hours after going to sleep.

Your baby will seem awake with eyes wide open and often be panicky, and scream. She'll appear confused, sometimes anxious and may sweat and breathe more heavily than usual.

It will probably be more scary for you than for your baby. She won't even remember nor will she notice you or react to you.

After a couple of minutes, she'll go back and drift off again - or in some cases wake up normally for a night feed.

Help your baby sleep well anyway

To avoid night terrors, make sure your baby doesn't get overtired: fatigue is an important trigger.

What you can do:

  • Go into her room straight away. Don't be frightened because she doesn't react to you. Do not try to wake her up either but make sure she does not get hurt when trying to sit, stand or moving arms and legs about. Tuck her in once she's calmed down and went back to sleep.
  • If your baby has very frequent terrors, you can try to break the pattern with the following technique.

    For a few nights (weeks if they are not that frequent) write down at what time the terrors start. You will normally discover a certain pattern and a time slot in which a terror typically occurs. Then, for a few nights (even if you are not sure there will be a terror) gently wake up your baby about 20-30 minutes before that time slot.

    Sit up with her for a few moments, talk to her softly and then put her back down to sleep again. If she is not easily awakened like this, you can try changing her diaper but avoid 'too exciting' activities or it may be difficult to get her back to sleep again ...

    This short wake time can help change her sleep pattern and that can avoid the confusional arousal after a while.
  • Consult your doctor or pediatrician if the terrors continue to be very frequent.

Dreams - Nightmares - Night Terrors