Night Terrors & Sleep Walking: How to Help Your Child


Our first experience with night terrors is forever burned into my memory. We had just moved to a new house with a 4-week-old baby and a preschooler. My 3-year-old had been in bed for about 2 hours when we heard it: screaming, clattering, crying. We found her attempting to claw through the window blinds behind her dollhouse, and she looked fully awake. But when I pulled her out and tried to comfort her, she pushed me away and screamed, “Where is my mommy? What did you do to her? WHERE IS SHE?!”

Wait. What? 

I’m glad I didn’t know then how many times this scenario would play out – it took over a year for us to finally figure out how to help her. We realized her night terrors were coming on the tail end of extremely busy days or days when she was extra active — sometimes when she was having a growth spurt, and always when my husband would travel overseas for work.

We tried earlier bed times, later bed times, essential oils, relaxing baths, Melatonin…and while none of it hurt, none of it helped enough to stop the night terrors or sleepwalking episodes.

If you suspect your child is battling night terrors (also known as “sleep terrors”), here are a few things you need to know:

  • Night terrors affect roughly 6% of children (typically ages 3-12) and 2% of adults
  • They run in families! If you had them as a child, your kids are at increased risk to have them.
  • Attempting to wake or constrain them will not help, so don’t even try.
  • You can turn on the light and talk to your child, but don’t expect this to bring them out of it.
  • Your child won’t remember anything the next morning (if they do, it’s a nightmare not a night terror)
  • It can take years for your child to outgrow them.
  • It’s not you, and it’s not them. Don’t take it personally!

The most common causes of night terrors are these:

  • Stress
  • Over-exertion (too much activity) or being over-tired (too little sleep)
  • Too much caffeine or other stimulants
  • Sleeping in an unfamiliar location/situation
  • New medications
  • Going to bed with a full bladder
  • An illness/fever

The most effective treatments for night terrors will be those that address the specific cause.

In our case, we knew part of the solution would be waiting for our daughter to get used to her new room. We used a predictable bedtime routine, lavender essential oil, and the occasional liquid drops of Melatonin to ease her into sleep as peacefully as possible. I tried to make sure she wasn’t too active (that was hard – she was three!) or too sleep-deprived. We even kept the baby gate at the top of our stairs well past the point it was needed to safeguard her from falling down the stairs, and we activated our security system at bedtime just in case she was sleepwalking and managed to get through the locks on our doors.

But the best thing we did – and I wish we’d known sooner – was to time how long it took for the night terrors to come on after she went to bed.

Since they happened 90 minutes to 2 hours after we tucked her in, I started setting an alarm on my phone for an hour and 15 minutes after bedtime (or approximately 15 minutes before she typically experienced her episodes). I would go into her room, wake her, take her to try to use the bathroom, and return her to bed. 

This intentional waking disrupted her sleep cycle enough to allow her to go back to bed without incident the rest of the night.

If you have tried all of these remedies (and maybe more? bless you, mama!) and your child still continues to struggle with night terrors and/or sleep walking, it’s time to consult your doctor. Occasionally, other health problems are to blame or the night terrors and sleepwalking can be helped by medication.

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