Most parents have comforted their child after the occasional nightmare.
Most parents have comforted their child after the occasional nightmare. But if your child has ever had what's known as a night terror (or sleep terror), his or her fear was likely inconsolable, no matter what you tried. They can be quite frightening as a parent, but your child will wake up the next with most likely no recollection of the event.
What are night terrors?
- A night terror is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare but is far more elaborate. Although night terrors can be shocking for parents who witness them, they are not usually a cause for concern or a sign of a deeper medical issue.
- Night terrors are episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep. Night terrors often are paired with sleepwalking. Like sleepwalking, night terrors are considered a parasomnia — an undesired occurrence during sleep. A night terror episode usually lasts from seconds to a few minutes, but episodes may last longer.
- Night terrors affect almost 40 percent of children and a much smaller percentage of adults. Most children outgrow sleep terrors by their teenage years.
What are the signs and symptoms of night terrors?
- Night terrors differ from nightmares. The dreamer of a nightmare wakes up from the dream and may remember details, but a person who has a night terror episode remains asleep. Children usually don't remember anything about their sleep terrors in the morning. Adults may recall a dream fragment they had during the night terrors.
- Night terrors generally occur in the first third to first half of the night, and rarely during naps. A night terror may lead to sleepwalking.
During a night terror episode, a person may:
- Begin with a frightening scream or shout
- Sit up in bed and appear frightened
- Stare wide-eyed
- Sweat, breathe heavily, and have a racing pulse, flushed face and dilated pupils
- Kick and thrash
- Be hard to awaken, and be confused if awakened
- Be inconsolable
- Have no or little memory of the event the next morning
- Possibly, get out of bed and run around the house or have aggressive behaviour if blocked or restrained
What causes night terrors?
- Night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep.
- Sleep happens in several stages. We have dreams — including nightmares — during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage. Night terrors happen during deep non-REM sleep. A night terror is not technically a dream, but more like a sudden reaction of fear that happens during the transition from one sleep stage to another.
- Night terrors usually happen about 2 or 3 hours after a child falls asleep, when sleep moves from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep. Usually this transition is a smooth one. But sometimes, a child becomes upset and frightened — and that fear reaction is a night terror.
Who Gets Night Terrors?
Night terrors have been noted in children who are:
- overtired, ill, or stressed
- taking a new medicine
- sleeping in a new environment or away from home
- not getting enough sleep
- having too much caffeine
Night terrors are relatively rare, they happen in only 3%–6% of children. While almost every child will have a nightmare occasionally, night terrors usually happen in children between 4 and 12 years old, but have been reported in babies as young as 18 months. They seem to be a little more common among boys.
Some children may inherit a tendency for night terrors — about 80% who have them have a family member who also had them or sleepwalking (a similar type of sleep disturbance).
A child might have a single night terror or several before they stop. Most of the time, night terrors simply disappear on their own as the nervous system matures.
How Can I Help My Child?
- Night terrors can be very upsetting for parents, who might feel helpless when they can't comfort their child. The best way to handle a night terror is to wait it out patiently and make sure your child doesn't get hurt if thrashing around. Kids usually will settle down and return to sleep on their own in a few minutes.
- It's best not to try to wake kids during a night terror. This usually doesn't work, and kids who do wake are likely to be disoriented and confused, and may take longer to settle down and go back to sleep.
- There's no treatment for night terrors, but you can try to help prevent them.
- reduce your child's stress
- create a bedtime routine that's simple and relaxing
- make sure your child gets enough rest
- help your child from becoming overtired
- don't let your child stay up too late
- If your child has a night terror around the same time every night, you can try waking him or her up about 15–30 minutes before then to see if that helps prevent it.
- Understanding night terrors can ease your worry — and help you get a good night's sleep yourself. But if night terrors happen repeatedly, talk to your doctor about whether a referral to a sleep specialist is needed.
When should I see a doctor?
- Occasional night terrors aren't usually a cause for concern. If your child has sleep terrors, you can simply mention them at a routine well-child exam. However, consult your doctor if night terrors:
- Become more frequent
- Routinely disrupt the sleep of the person with sleep terrors or other family members
- Lead to safety concerns or injury
- Result in daytime symptoms of excessive sleepiness or problems functioning
- Continue beyond the teen years or start in adulthood
Laura Doyle, Mum of 4. Kyle 9, Noa Belle 4, Briar 2 and Milla 12 months. Breastfeeder, co-sleeper, coffee drinker. Staying positive and inspired by the chaos of it all. Follow her on Instagram.