If your child sat bolt upright in the middle of the night, let out a blood-curdling scream, didn't respond to your attempts to calm her and had no memory of the event the next morning, you have a case of night terrors (not demonic possession) on your hands. There's more good news, too; your child is not actually terrified—and you don't need to be either. We asked two children's sleep experts, and one real mom, for the inside scoop on night terrors, and what you can do to help them pass. (Hint: you can close that "local exorcism" search window now.)
Jill Spivack, LCSW, sleep consultant, co-owner of Sleepy Planet and co-author of The Sleepeasy Solution: The Exhausted Parents Guide to Getting your Child to Sleep
"Night terrors occur in a small percentage of children. They are not nightmares and need to be treated differently. Although night terrors are extremely upsetting for parents to witness, your child is not in any real danger; these episodes are also not psychologically based, and children have no memory of night terrors once they've awoken. Night terrors usually occur in the first several hours of your child's sleep. She may appear to wake with a sudden jolt (or she may cry, scream, or thrash her body), but because she is not actually awake, she will be unable to answer you or hear you if you try to stop the terror or help her in some way. To help, stay near your child, but don't wake her or interrupt the terror unless she's in physical danger. Since stress can contribute to night terrors, too, try to reduce your child's daytime stressors—especially during times of change—by reducing activities and consciously addressing any issues in the family."
Angelique Millette, parent coach, sleep consultant, and infant/toddler sleep researcher
"There is often a family history of night terrors, and they are most common in boys. They're often triggered by sleep deprivation or by a sudden change in the child's schedule in the preceding days—such as vacations, the end of the school year, and visiting relatives. If your child experiences frequent night terrors, you can try a 'scheduled awakening:' for several nights, observe how many minutes it is from the time your child falls asleep until the beginning of the night terror. Then, fifteen minutes before the usual time of the night terror, wake your child for a full five minutes. Do this for seven nights in a row to fade night terrors. If the night terrors return, you can repeat the scheduled awakening as needed. If your child's night terrors last for longer than 30 minutes, occur during the second half of the night, or if your child experiences stiffening, jerking or drooling, you should call your pediatrician."
Brandy Mayer, real mom and producer at BabyZone
"My oldest, who's now 6, started having night terrors at around age two. She'd wake up in the middle of the night, screaming and inconsolable. It wasn't your usual 'bad dream' kind of scream either—it was scary and blood-curdling! As she got older, the night terrors seemed to evolve into sleep walking. I spoke to her doctor about it and she mentioned that kids with night terrors often also later sleepwalk. She suggested that I get some locks, out of her reach, to keep her from wandering outdoors. My advice to other moms with little ones with night terrors would be to just remain calm. Sit with them, and wait for them to pass. Sometime I lay with her until she stops crying and gets through it—so she knows I'm there for her. I think it makes both of us feel better."