Little Kids

Ask Dr. Dina: My kid has night terrors. What should I do?

Night terrors are scary to watch but here's why you shouldn't worry.

Photo: iStock Photo: iStock

What’s the best way to deal with night terrors?

It’s scary to see your kid screaming and thrashing about in fear in the middle of the night. But while night terrors are alarming to watch, they’re not usually a cause for concern. They occur during non-REM sleep, the deepest slumber of the night, which is usually two to three hours after a child has nodded off. This is often when a child is transitioning from deep sleep to lighter REM sleep. Even though this transition is usually a smooth one, a child can become frightened and alarmed, resulting in a night terror, which is quite distinct from a nightmare. Because night terrors occur during deep sleep, kids don’t remember them.

Night terrors are caused by an over-arousal of the central nervous system. Being overtired or experiencing stressful life changes, new medications or a fever can increase the risk. Typically, they affect kids between the ages of three and 12—they are something kids grow out of.

If your child is experiencing a night terror, do not try to wake him up. Stay with him to ensure he doesn’t hurt himself until he settles down again—it might take a few minutes. In terms of prevention, the biggest piece of advice I can give is to establish a consistent, relaxing bedtime routine and make sure your kid is getting enough sleep. At this age, children need 10 to 12 hours of sleep every night. If your child’s night terrors happen repeatedly, speak to your paediatrician about a possible referral for a sleep study.

Dina Kulik is a paediatrician and emergency room doctor in Toronto and mom to three boys, who are five, three and 17 months. Send her your kids’ health questions at

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