I'm a child sleep expert – why kids get night terrors, how to deal with them & why hugging them is a no-no | The Sun

IT can be unsettling to see your child experiencing a night terror, but it might be reassuring to know they're pretty common.

Here, a child sleep expert reveals everything you need to know about the traumatic late-night episodes, and what parents can do to help.


"Night terrors can be incredibly distressing and scary to watch as a parent, some children may even talk and shout 'get away' or call out 'mummy' and parents are right there in front of them," Sue Welby, from LittleLifeSteps tells Fabulous.

"When children are talking and shouting out like this it makes parents believe their child is awake, but they are not. They are in a deep sleep."

What are night terrors?

Sleep terrors are episodes of high-pitched screaming, night sweating, arched backs and crying, with eyes wide open and a face filled with panic.

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A child will have no recollection of a night terror in the morning, and if they do, they most likely had a nightmare – there's a big difference, according to Sue.

She explains: "A night terror is when a child gets caught between two sleep stages.

"They happen during non-Rem (NREM) sleep when a child is emerging from their deep sleep.

"A child’s body is very active thrashing around, but their mind is not fully awake."

The episodes normally occur within the first 2-3 hours of falling asleep and they typically last about ten minutes.

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But for some children, they could be as short as one minute or as long as 30 minutes. 

Kids often fall straight back to sleep but can wake up dazed with no memory of what happened.

Why do children get them?

The cause of night terrors is relatively unknown but there's reason to believe there's a genetic link involved, Sue says.

She suggests families speak with their own parents and ask if they experienced them as a child which could help offer some insight.

Overheating could be another reason, Sue says, as kids "can’t regulate their temperature like adults."

She explains: "Due to the heat, children are having a more disturbed night’s sleep and going into their day feeling tired.

"This then leads on to overtiredness which is a major factor in causing a night terror."

If you notice night terrors after returning from holiday, there's a simple reason why.

Sue says: "Some children will get night terrors when they return from a holiday due to the disruption in their sleep schedule and a change in their diet.

"Parents are more likely to offer sugary snacks with additives on holiday.

"Monitoring this could prevent a night terror."

And finally, some kids have been known to experience night terrors after returning from the hospital.

There are a few reasons for this, Sue says, including certain medications, separation anxiety and emotional distress and anxiety.

How to deal with them

Unfortunately, "there's not a lot parents can do" when a night terror hits, but that doesn't mean do nothing.

Offer verbal reassurance

While it won't stop the episode, repeating the same sentence can help offer reassurance. For example, “Mummy/daddy is here, you are safe."

"This is more for the parents as just by saying this it can help parents feel calmer and not so helpless," Sue explains.

"It is more upsetting for the parent than the child. Relax, breathe, and ride the night terror out."

This can also help parents fall back asleep afterwards as many say they have trouble sleeping if their little one is off.

Keep them safe

During a night terror, if the little one is thrashing around then protect them from banging into any furniture and potentially hurting themselves.

Do this and wait it out until the episode is over.

Keep a sleep diary

If the night terrors are frequent, keeping a sleep diary will help you work out what time they wake each night, and if there's a recurring pattern.

What is stirring and does it help?

Once you have a regular time each night, scheduled stirring is where a parent will rouse their child 15-30 minutes before the time the night terror starts.

This is so they come to a slightly higher level of sleep, but they are not fully awake.  

To do this, Sue says: "First start by just walking in the room. This may be enough for them to stir. If not move on to using your voice and say their name."

If they still don't wake, parents can try touch by placing their hand on their child, or they could try repositioning them as this will stir many children.

"This is then repeated every night for two weeks," Sue says.

"If the child wakes fully then bring it forward by 15 minutes so you're stirring when they're in their deep sleep stage."

Why you shouldn't hug your children

"It's a natural response for parents when a child is looking distressed to try and wake them, or to offer them a hug," Sue says.

But she warns against it and says hugging is a no-no, in fact, you shouldn't try and wake them at all.

"During a night terror children can be very agitated or feel trapped, so a parent going in for a hug can make them worse," Sue explains.

"Hugs, or trying to wake them, can prolong the night terror and make those feelings more heightened."

Sue says many parents she's helped have reported a reduction in the length of the night terror.

But it always depends on the child, she explains, as "some night terrors are not so huge and all children are unique."

So if hugging your child helps them through the ordeal and allows them to fall asleep quickly, then hug away.

Can babies get night terrors?

The answer is yes.

Rachel Vera, an expert at Hubble Connected, tells Fabulous: "Night terrors are unfortunately extremely common among both children and adults, however, few parents realise that babies experience them too."

"Whilst research in this area is comparatively limited, babies can experience the discomfort of a night terror; in actual fact, baby night terrors are much more common than most parents assume. "

Signs of a night terror in babies include:

  • wailing and screaming
  • rapid breathing
  • a racing heartbeat
  • appearing distressed
  • crying
  • unresponsiveness

"If you see these indicating factors in your little one, they could be experiencing a night terror," Rachel says.

Like with kids, not a whole lot can be done while your little one is experiencing a night terror, but you can take steps to help avoid them altogether.

Rachel says: "Night terrors can be alleviated to a great extent by simply minimising stress and regulating your baby’s sleep routine.

"As babies are technically asleep during a night terror, they may not respond to your soothing attempts in the moment. Instead, prevention becomes a priority. "

Rachel suggests having soft night lights in their room to help foster melatonin production and encourage restful sleep.

"I would also recommend that you re-evaluate your baby’s nursery; is it comfortable, the right temperature, dark, and quiet? Your baby must be in a relaxing environment to settle and sleep," she says.

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"If you have any concerns about your baby’s wellbeing and possible sleep terrors, speak to your doctor.

"Distress in babies can highlight a number of things so it’s always better to get your little one checked out."

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