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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]

Published April 20, 2011. Last updated March 12, 2018.
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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