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Night Terrors

In The Night Terror Kitchen

By Amalah

Hi Amy,

So sorry for your recent loss and love the blogs and congrats on your newest addition.

Advice Smackdown ArchivesI know you probably have a bunch of stuff in the queue but I really hope you can answer this quickly. I have a beautiful amazing little girl who is 8 months old today. She is a champion sleeper and always has been. Been sleeping through the night since she came home from the hospital. So 2 nights ago we put her down after the regular diaper change/ toothbrushing routine and she went right to sleep as usual. About a half hour later she woke up screaming. She was only comforted when I was holding her. Any attempt to put her back in her crib resulted in screaming and big fat tears. I did this for about an hour and finally just took her in the guest room. She went right to sleep but kept reaching out and petting my cheek all night long. Like she was making sure I was still there. I don’t know about you but I cannot sleep with someone touching my face every few minutes. So around 2am I was able to put her back in her own room for the rest of the night.

Then last night after the routine I went to put her in her crib like usual and she was not having it. Screaming before she hit the mattress. I decided to give her 10 minutes so I left. For those 10 minutes she cried so hard she made herself sick and her sheet was soaked with tears. This is totally not like her. I again tried to comfort her by rubbing her back and talking to her but nothing would comfort her but me holding her. So again she ended up in my bed. And again she rubbed my face all night. I don’t want this to become a habit but don’t know what to do. Why is she suddenly terrified of her bed? I don’t believe this is separation anxiety because it started in the middle of the night and she is fine all day long while we’re apart. Please Please Please shed some light over here.

Exhausted and waiting….

Well, this is a hard one to diagnose FOR SURE over the Internet (as opposed to actually witnessing the episode), but it sounds to me like your daughter had a nightmare…or possibly a night terror.

Evidence in favor of a run-of-the-mill scary nightmare would be the fact that she seemed to REMEMBER her fear and the trauma while resisting bedtime the following night. Babies and toddlers do indeed get bad dreams and can be shaken by them for up to a few days — after all, they don’t understand what dreams are in the first place, and that they aren’t real, and at eight months old she has absolutely no way of communicating her fear to you, other than crying, clinging, and resisting the place where it all started.

If it was a nightmare, relax: The problem will likely work itself out in another night or two as her memory of the incident fades. Stick with the bedtime routine like glue, while incorporating some extra cuddling time right before putting her down. Maybe let her take a favorite toy or lovey to bed with her, or add a nightlight or musical toy option to the routine to take her mind off the whole “being left behind in the scary dark” panic.

Evidence in favor of a night terror? Well, the intensity of her reaction, mostly, and the fact that it happened during the first/early part of the night. (Nightmares happen during REM-cycle sleep; night terrors occur during the early non-REM-cycle stages of sleep.) Noah had a small handful of these between (OH GOD THE SENILITY) 12 and 14 months? Or so? I think? They are fairly common, and many parents first report them between eight and nine months of age. No one really knows what they are or what causes them — they’re really just kind of a mystery. For most young children, they are a simple developmental blip, maybe timed with growth spurts or sleep regressions, and don’t indicate any long-lasting sleep problems for the future.

The most important thing to remember about night terrors (if that’s what you’re dealing with) is that your child actually isn’t awake. She may sure SEEM awake — eyes open, standing up, flailing around, screaming so loud she wakes the neighbors — but she is still asleep. Intervening during a night terror doesn’t help, and in fact makes it worse, leading to a night like the one you described with a confused, sleep-disrupted baby who is off her routine and can’t fall back asleep because she woke up in a frantic, panicked state and doesn’t know why. The best thing to do is to simply wait out the episode (which can last five minutes or up to a skull-melting half hour or more). Once it’s over, she’ll simply…lie down and be quiet (maybe with a few more whimpers) and sleep. And she won’t remember the episode at all the next morning.

(It’s possible — if this WAS a terror and not a nightmare — that your daughter’s crib-fighting behavior the next night had more to do with the fact that she simply learned very quickly that sleeping next to Mama was an option that she wanted to repeat, or that being awoken mid-terror was as stressful on her as it was on you, thus leading to a typical post-nightmare-type reaction.)

I KNOW. But trust me. This isn’t Cry It Out, or sleep training, or ignoring her…it’s just…a really, really weird experience, and most of us who encounter them did the exact same thing you did the first time. Really-good-sleeper baby suddenly up and screaming for no reason? Whaaah? Pick her up! Comfort! Rock! Nurse! Soothe! Get increasingly baffled because none of these things are working! It can be really tough to gauge, especially at this young age, the difference between a sleeping night terror (which requires nothing but waiting it out from you) and a nightmare (which does require soothing). At some point they can start TALKING TO YOU and saying they had a bad dream, or at least calling out for Mama or Dada so you know that they are, in fact, probably awake and not just howling in their sleep for no reason.

I finally figured out that Noah was having the occasional night terror after one started when my husband was on a business trip and I was taking a post-workout-DVD shower. I heard the shrieks over the baby monitor and tried to finish up and get to him as quickly as I could, but you know, SOAP SUDS. WATER. NAKEDNESS. I got in there within 15 minutes, just in time to witness him go silent and drop back to the crib mattress in a sleepy, silent heap, where he remained for the rest of the night, as if nothing ever happened.

(And I was like, ooooookay. That sure was weird.)

And soon after that, they stopped, just as suddenly as they’d started. We’ve never experienced anything like it again, from either of the boys. Night-wakings now tend to happen deep in the middle of the night for more straightforward reasons, like nightmares or illness. The experience did teach me to wait and count to 10 or so before barreling into Ezra’s room around that age at the first sound of shrieking, and waiting again to observe him in his crib before swooping him up. Was he awake? Was he aware of my presence? Reaching for me? Super sweaty like he’d been dreaming intensely? If I was certain I could answer “yes” to any of these questions, I ruled in favor of nightmare (or earache or growing pain) and offered as much snuggling and comfort as I could, and thanking the gods in heaven for whoever invented the Taggie lovey blanket and the musical light-up Glowworm toy because MAN, those things came in handy on nights like that.

If there is a question you would like answered by Amalah on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected]

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Kate

    April 20, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Ah, night terrors: more terrifying for the parents than the kid, who never remembers a thing.

    One thing I would add: Amy is right in that you generally leave the kid alone during night terrors…unless he is in danger of hurting himself. My son would try to stand up while also thrasing around so badly that I was afraid he would smack his head on the crib. I would take him out as carefully as possible and restrain him as best I could until he finally calmed down enough to go back to sleep.

  • Allonsee

    April 20, 2011 at 11:23 am

    My 2.5 will still have a night terror from time to time, mainly now when he has muscled past his nap and goes to bed early and exhausted – then the end of the first sleep cycle is just ear shattering.
    The only one I’ve ever been able to help with was the one where he was screaming “no no no no no” and finally I just started talking to him about how we could do something different and we could stop whatever he didn’t want to do and he did the collapse into happy sleep.

  • Kate

    April 20, 2011 at 1:32 pm

    I don’t have a lot of very helpful diagnosis-type advice beyond what Amy said, but I will share that I went though SEVERAL similar-sounding phases with my now two-year-old. We would wonder nightmares? night terrors? separate anxiety? really awful teething? sickness? Except for when he was sick (usually ear infections) we could never definitively figure out what the problems were, and yet they popped up every now and again. Eventually, though, they all ENDED. After a week or two or a month at most. I think the bottom line is that babies go through ups and downs with sleeping and you just have to try to get through it (it sucks, I know). If letting her sleep with you for part of the night is comforting for her now, then maybe suck it up and do it for the time being. It won’t be forever (even though it will feel that way at the time)

  • Prof. Kitty

    April 20, 2011 at 1:44 pm

    Any chance that it’s teething? I ask because my son is 8 months too and just got his first tooth recently, and it totally changed his sleep. He always got up 2-3 times a night anyway, but with this tooth thing he would wake up SCREAMING half an hour after I put him down, then every hour or so, or more often, and was just a wreck. After the tooth came in he was somewhat back to normal. During, the doc told us to give him Infant Tylenol for when he just seemed too miserable. In the daytime he is pretty chipper though of course gnawing and drooling on everything. Just another thought for this age.

  • tami

    April 20, 2011 at 2:34 pm

    just want to say that we, too, went through this with our daughter at about the same age. she spent a significant number of nights (or parts of nights) in our bed. eventually it passed, so just hang in there. it certainly *is* weird stuff though – thats for sure!

  • Wallydraigle

    April 20, 2011 at 3:37 pm

    I hope this doesn’t sound too evil, but it makes me feel better to know other people’s young babies did this, too. My first daughter, also a champion sleeper, did the same exact thing right around the same age. And everyone told me it couldn’t POSSIBLY be nightmares, and definitely not night terrors.
    Pffft. Whatever. Something sure was going on. I finally read something about how total darkness in a room can actually contribute to worse nightmares. Since the sun came up directly into her window at 4am, I wasn’t taking the blackout curtain down, but I did put in a nightlight. Problem solved. She went back to sleeping that very night.
    You might also want to check for scary shadows. I don’t know if 8 months is too early for kids to be affected by that or not, but a few months ago, that same daughter (now 2.5) started screaming one night after I’d rearranged the nursery. Turns out the night light was shining through the bars on the changing table, and it made a shadow on the ceiling like a big, angry toothy face. I even found it a bit unnerving.

  • Kim

    April 21, 2011 at 11:00 am

    My daughter did the same thing, though her night terrors were when she was 3.  We made the mistake of waking her once, and never, ever repeated it because of the terror that waking inflicted on all of us.  Waiting it out, while making sure she wouldn’t hurt herself, was all that we could do.  After about 4-5 night terrors in a 3-4 month period, they stopped.  

  • MR

    April 22, 2011 at 1:45 pm

    My daughter did the same thing around that age. She was teething, and it would wake her up. The fact that you were actually able to comfort your daughter makes me think it ISN’T night terrrors. I have seen them firsthand with my niece, and nothing worked to comfort her, not even Mommy. Especially since your daughter kept reaching out to reassure herself that you were there, it seems like she is just doing that stage. My daughter did it several times. Every time she was sick or teething and I would go in there, she would learn after ONE NIGHT, that she could get me to come in. Several nights later when I was exhausted, a friend would remind me that she was totally playing me, and I would have to break her of the habit again. We did this a lot. I was a sucker. lol I learned to listen for her “I’m hurt” cry. Then she learned to throw in her “I’m hurt” cry when she wasn’t. See a pattern here? Some people say babies don’t manipulate, and while I don’t believe my daughter was doing it to be manipulative, she was definitely doing it because she wanted Mommy and had figured out a new way to get what she wanted. Didn’t mean it was in her best interest (a well-rested Mommy was WAY better for her), but babies don’t always know what is best for them. My daughter is great at playing Mommy. Luckily, I have gotten a little wiser. Regardless, go with what feels right to you. I repeated the cycle because there were nights where I really thought she was sick or in pain and needed me, and I wasn’t comfortable letting her cry. Then, several nights later when I was wondering how she could still be in pain even though her tooth broke through (or whatever) my friend would remind me that I was being played and I would then be comfortable letting her cry and go back to sleep. There is no one solution. Remember, YOU know your child best. What are your instincts saying? If you think she needs you, then be there for her. If you think she is playing you, re-teach her how to sleep through the night.

  • Meredith

    April 24, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    My daughter is 8 and still gets night terrors occasionally. She got them at age 2 and it was very standard stuff. They started again when she was 6 and were awful. Now, we’re old pros, but for a while the soothing thing did not work and the ONLY option (besides not sleeping at all) was to wake her up. It was awful and I have many guilt-inducing memories of yelling at her to “WAKE UP RIGHT THIS INSTANT!”

    I did discover that television worked wonders – I carried her downstairs screaming, turned on Hannah Montana and sat down. She instantly calmed and a few minutes later turned to me and asked, “Why are we watching tv in the middle of the night?”

    Also helpful was waking her up just before she entered one of those episodes. This only works if the child has a regular schedule to their night terrors. My daughter’s occurred at about 9:45pm, so I could go in at 9:30, wake her up, get her a drink and put her back to bed, which was usually enough to disrupt the cycle.

    We also had the problem of sleepwalking in addition to the terrors, and once she tried to leave the house, so be aware of that possibility too.

  • Kelly Je

    April 27, 2011 at 2:10 pm

    Night terrors going on consistently for an extended period of time (weeks/month) can also be related to/caused by sleep apnea (particularly if preceded by coughing), so if they continue for a period of time, it is a good idea to talk to your pediatrician about it.