During night terrors, suggest a “replacement dream”

Jill in Atlanta’s loving, creative response to her son’s night terrors:

One of my boys often wakes us in the night screaming. ("No! No!") Sometimes he’s awake but usually he’s still asleep. I’ve tried all sorts of things but the best solution I’ve found is to "replace" his dream with a new one. I talk to him quietly saying things like "No! No! Come back, helicopter! We want to take a helicopter ride! The helicopter IS coming back and you get to take a helicopter ride! You climb into it and you and Teddy sit down and get ready for the helicopter ride! The helicopter is going up! You and Teddy get to be in the helicopter!" Got the idea? (Can you tell he’s really into helicopters?) I hope that my repetition will help cement the idea in his head and replace whatever was traumatizing him before. I’m optimistic that he’ll start sleeping through the night sometime before he leaves for college. P. S. Guided imagery also helps him get calm enough to fall asleep at night when he’s particularly wired.

Related: Helping an anxious child get to sleep


  1. says

    Our daughter had night terrors very early in life, between six months and 10 months. We found that changing the environment was very effective, particularly temperature. In the early ones we would take her outside into the cold winter air and it calmed her quickly. Later we put music on and flooded the room with lights. The temperature change worked best, but both were effective.

  2. says

    i used to have night terrors quite often as a child and i found that unless i went back to sleep thinking about how to change the dream to something pleasant, i would end up right back in the nightmare.

  3. Liz says

    What a sweet idea- I remember trying to change stressful dreams myself as a child.

    My son (3.5 years)does not suffer from night terrors, but he does cry out in distress most nights in his sleep- when he needs to use the bathroom. Once we hear the cries start (often an anxious “No, no” cry), we take him to the bathroom. Once that full bladder pressure is gone, the stressful anxious dream is over too and he falls back to sleep peacefully.

  4. says

    What a great idea!! I have tried this with my daughter’s bad dreams and it works really well. Visualization also works to “re-think” bad decision making during the waking hours-hitting, name calling, not sharing, etc.

  5. says

    I learned this on some TV show but it totally works for my kids: Tell them “Did you know that in your dreams you are the BOSS? (kids love that word) and whatever you say, the others HAVE to do it because you are the boss. So if a monster is chasing you, you can turn around and say ‘No monsters. You go home right now.’ and he has to do it because you are the boss and it’s your dream.”

    We never had terrors again after that.

  6. says

    Night Terrors are very different than nightmares. In night terrors the person is NOT awake and does not remember what they were dreaming about. In fact, most people having a night terror do not want to be touched or talked to and should not be, especially if they are having a bad terror. The best thing to do is make sure they are safe and let it ride out.

  7. Missy says

    Two of my boys suffer from night terrors. They tend to have them if they have had a very active or exciting day. My 4 yr old has them really bad. He usually always leaves his room and runs thru out the house. I try and get him in the kitchen for a cold drink of water. That is the only way I can calm him down. Once he takes a drink of the cold water I take him to the bathroom and then back to bed. I have tried to change the dream for him as well, but that doesn’t work on him. He is usually up screaming 20 minutes later.

  8. Seth says

    Pickel is absolutely right. Many people mistake nightmares for night terrors. Our 4-year-old had night terrors and it was absolutely the most terrifying thing I’ve ever experienced. It was like a scene for a horror film with a possessed child – uncontrolled shrieking, flailing of arms and legs, crying out for one or both parents, no recognition of anyone else in the room though her eyes were wide open and we were talking to her.

    My wife and I didn’t have a clue what was going on so we Googled it and discovered that night terrors are very similar to sleep walking. The best advice we received was to try and remain calm and make sure the child doesn’t do anything dangerous. Otherwise, we were told, don’t attempt to touch or engage the child.

    We learned that night terrors are caused by disturbances in Stage 4 (pre-REM) sleep. There appear to be many causes of those disturbances. Anyone interested in night terrors should search on it – there are tons of good resources available out there.

    Our daughter has no memory of her events, as opposed to her nightmares and bad dreams, which she can recount vividly the next morning. Thankfully, it has been almost a year since she has had an event.

  9. Missy says

    Yep Seth you are right. My 4 yr old woke up one time when the other kids were up and he scared the crap out of them. He will look at them like he is looking thru them and scream like he is watching something horrific. Then he usually runs up stairs and downstairs screaming and pounding on walls. And touching them will usually make it worse, but he will go on for hours if we don’t try and stop it. We carefully wrap our arms around him from behind and help him with a drink. He will usually still cry a bit but he stops the kicking and hitting. By the time we get him back in bed he is quiet again. My 12 yr old suffered from the same but outgrew them.

  10. says

    One of ours had night terrors (and I agree, they’re FREAKY, and no, they don’t recall them at all), and another has periodic night-terror-sleep-walking episodes (usually after highly stimulating events or very tiring events, both of which also disrupt his sleep cycle enough to cause him to wet the bed). Fortunately the last time this happened, DH caught him just as he was leaving the hotel room… serious YIKES moment, there. Totally non-aware, non-coherent child walking around loose in a hotel at night. (That’s the last time we ever forget to bolt the door!!!!!)

    If they’re frequent, you can try disrupting the sleep cycle right after they go to sleep – about 15-20 minutes after they fall asleep, wake them just enough to make them stir. It helps for a lot of kids with the true night terror form, even really severe cases. Just horrible nightmares (which my kids also get) seem to be more helped by the coaching/visualizing thing.

  11. gila says

    if it is a night terror, I was once told, child should NOT be woken, NOT be asked what the matter is etc (as said before, no ‘engagement’) but SHOULD be told that her or his parents/carers love her or him – clearly but in your normal, calm voice.

    it seems to me to work…

    good luck though.

  12. Alix says

    I once read that you should uncover the feet if they are having a night terror. I stopped putting my child to bed in footed pj’s, and that seemed to help the terrors- not sure if it was coincidence and he just outgrew them or if it was the the bare feet (he had them as an infant–very scary), but whatever works!!! But i’ve heard of other people putting their child’s feet in cool water to stop it- not sure I could do that, but again, whatever works for you!!!

  13. says

    Well, as the one who suggested this action, I’m not sure what I’m dealing with. He’s done this since infancy. He is clearly still asleep, and remembers nothing the next day. But, my talking to him is the best solution we’ve found yet. So, for now I’m going to go with what works! The name of what he has/does isn’t as important to me anyway.

  14. says

    Our four year old has nightmares in which he’ll cry out in his sleep and start to cry, but as soon as he hears my voice he becomes calm and quiet.

    One night there was NOTHING I could do to calm him – he was completely terrified and somewhere unreachable. I finally had to carry him out of his room into the living room (i.e. environment change) and he gradually came out of it. It was soooo bizarre… I’m thinking now that it was a night terror, and all the other times were just nightmares?

  15. says

    From what I’ve read night terrors are most common among children whose parents have a history of sleep walking, talking in their sleep, and childhood night terrors.

    Ranger has had a few before reaching age 3 (not surprising as his dad and I have a history that include all the indicators mentioned above).

    In our case, it’s best not to touch him or try and adjust his bedding. He simply flips out more if we try to intervene. I think it’s the disembodied nature of the touch when he’s already in a confusing dream.

    Without intervention, the terrors pass more quickly (though it seems like forever to an observer). Sometimes we’ll just softly sing him a favorite song to try and bring him out of it.

    If your child has night terrors, don’t be surprised to see him or her sleepwalking in a the next few years.

  16. says

    This works great for nightmares which my toddler has every so often. He’s only had a night terror once and it was indeed freaky. You would have thought I was killing him or something from outside the room but I was all the way across the room going to turn the light on because I couldn’t tell if something was seriously wrong or not.

    Saying that it’s something that kids who’s parents sleepwalk or talk in their sleep makes sense. I talk in my sleep when I’m stressed and my husband used to sleepwalk if he’d stayed up too late.

  17. says

    We definitely have/had night terrors. The first time it happened, we were so freaked out, we almost went to the ER because we didnt know what was happening (the thrashing and screaming, etc). Before heading out the door, we decided to just try to calm him a little (remember, at this time we did not know what a night terror was), we sat on the couch and I read him his favorite book. The familiarity of our voices and a story he knew immediately calmed him down and he was back asleep and calm within 5 minutes. We continued this routine every time he had a night terror, and it worked every time.

    Thankfully, we have not had an episode in some time now.

  18. says

    @Jill and Lizzie, the regular, calm, reliable/repeatable/familiar tone of the story (invented for Jill, read for Lizzie) may be similar to the ‘calm statement of love’ recommended as the only intervention by others. It’s just longer in your case (I wonder if you stopped earlier, the calming down process would take the same time? I know that the calming down process just took a few minutes once it clicked in, regardless of what we did… the rest of the process may not be as important as the starting of it? Not that I’d necessarily stop – I know how much I needed to kind of follow along with the calming/settling process with my kids!)

    (oh, and I talked in my sleep as a kid… so, yep on the parental history. It does seem to be genetic.)

    @Jill in Atlanta, if it has been ongoing for that long, it might be worth trying the disrupting the sleep pattern approach to see if that prevents it entirely.

  19. Laura says

    My mom did this for me when I was little! It took a little while to catch on, but my massive night terrors went away. Yay for good parenting!

  20. Terra says

    Hello All!!

    I just went through the night terrors with my son about 3 months ago with my 4yr old son. It scared the daylights out of me, he would sit up in his bed while he was sleep screaming I want to go home. I was advised not to grab or hug him, because it could get worse. I would talk to him and ask him where he was and that mommy was here to help him and come home, this would last for at least 10mins until he calmed down. I did some research on parentcenter.com and followed their suggestions which was the following:
    I went to the library and checked out the following two book: Bedtime for Frances by Russell Hoban and In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak (good books). These two books I read to my son for a couple of weeks and I also purchased a native american dream catcher for his room and explained what a dream catcher was and it is was going to catch all of his bad dreams and keep them away and let the good and funny dreams through. This seemed to work for him and I hope it works for your child, he has not had a night terror for about 3 months.

    Hope this helps.