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Most children will experience one or more night terrors. They typically occur in children between the ages of 3 and 5. Parents usually become highly upset when these episodes occur because they do not understand what is happening. As a result of not really understanding the process, they often do things that are not very helpful for the child.

Children between the ages of 3 and 5 are usually making the transition from taking a nap during the day to not taking a nap at all.  The terrors are the result of the child not yet being able to go through the entire sleep cycle properly. Children who are overly tired will usually fall quickly into a deep sleep – and when it is time to wake up - part of the child's brain wants to stay in the deep sleep. This inner conflict is what produces the night terror.

A night terror is very different from a nightmare – and should be treated differently. In a typical night terror, the child may scream out and sit up (or even get up) with eyes wide open. They may be calling for a parent – but refuse to allow that patent to come close to them - as they continue to call out for them!  

The child may look and act awake, but they are not; they are still very sound asleep. Unlike a nightmare, the night terror typically lasts only a minute or so and the child will not remember it in the morning. The child usually goes right back to sleep when the brief episode is over.

Night terrors are most effectively dealt with in the following manner;

-You may actually prolong the episode by trying to cuddle or hold your child. During a night terror, the child is probably feeling chased or trapped and trying to hold them will only intensify those feelings.

-Talk to the child in a calm comforting voice. You can even read from a favorite book to help bring the child back to a calm state of mind. The child will usually fall back asleep in a few minutes.

-Night terrors tend to happen around the same time at night. Wake the child up about 30 minutes or so before this time. Read, talk, or sing to them, for about 5 minutes and then let them go back to sleep. This will break the sleep cycle.

-Your child will not remember the event the next morning. So don't bring it up the next day. Remember to also tell other children not to discuss it in front of the child.

-Preventing night terrors involves understanding your child's individual tolerance level and not overloading it with overly busy and hectic schedules. If your child has had an unusually busy day, add a nap during that day. If you know that an overly busy day is coming, put the child to bed a bit early the night before.

Knowing what a night terror is, and how to react to it, can make a potentially frightening experience for the parent much easier to deal with.

 **James is a Masters level Child Psychologist and Internationally Certified Alcohol and Drug Counselor who has worked with distressed families for 40 years. He is the author of the Seamus the Sheltie series of children's books that were designed to assist parents in discussing difficult issues with younger children. Both books have received multiple national awards from parenting organizations. Mr. Beverly has written and published articles on parenting in a variety of media.


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