What Are Night Terrors?

Anyone with a child who has experienced night terrors knows how scary they can be not only for the child but also for the family member trying to comfort them. Nearly 40 percent of children experience night terrors, and although most people grow out of them by the time they reach adolescence.

Night terrors are distinctly different than nightmares, which are a frightening dream that occur, like any other dream, during REM sleep. Usually, the frightening nature of the dream will wake up the dreamer, who will often experience increased heart rate and breathing for a brief period until they calm down. People usually remember what they were dreaming about or at least a few fragments of the nightmare. Almost everyone experiences nightmares at some point in their lives, regardless of age, gender, or race.

Night terrors, on the other hand, are most often found in children. In fact, nearly 40 percent of all children experience night terrors. Night terror episodes might include increased heart rate and breathing, sweating, screaming, flailing, and even sleepwalking. Sometimes the child’s eyes will be open, but they won’t be responsive to anything and they will be very difficult to wake up. Night terrors take place during the deepest stage of non-REM sleep, which means that the child usually does not remember what they were dreaming of during their night terror, but instead are left with a general sense of fear.

Night terrors can be caused by stress, fever, or any interruptions in a child’s regular sleep patterns. For example, if a child is extremely tired or sleep deprived, or if their sleep schedule is disrupted for any reason—for example, a hectic traveling schedule over the holidays—they might be more likely to experience night terrors.

In some cases, night terrors may be caused by a child’s underlying condition. For example, sleep-disordered breathing, such as sleep apnea, restless legs syndrome, or mood disorders such as depression or anxiety, can affect a child’s sleep and potentially trigger night terror episodes. There is also some genetic and biological connection. Night terrors “are more common if family members have a history of sleep terrors or sleepwalking. In children, sleep terrors are more common in females.”

Night terrors are scary enough for both the child experiencing them and the parent trying to help their child. Other consequences of night terrors often include disturbed sleep, which leads to sleep deprivation, which only exacerbates the problem. Sleep deprivation also negatively impacts the child’s health and overall engagement in their day-to-day life. Sometimes, although not often, children experiencing night terrors can injure themselves or someone nearby, possibly by flailing their arms or sleepwalking.

If you become concerned about your child’s safety or health, a trip to the doctor’s office could help alleviate any concerns. Prior to seeing your doctor, keep a detailed sleep journal with information about when your child goes to sleep and wakes up, when night terrors occur, and any factors that might have affected your child’s sleep. This will help your doctor have a better idea of your child’s sleep patterns.

Unfortunately, there are no medications to alleviate night terrors. However, there are some steps parents may want to consider. For example, you might try to maintain a consistent sleep schedule, encouraging your child to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. You could also try to reduce as many sources of sleep disturbance as possible, such as street noises or light coming in from outside. The most important step might be to remove any harmful objects that the child might encounter while experiencing a night terror episode. For example, if there is a lamp on the bedside table, you may want to place it on the other side of the room, in case the child knocks it over. If your child sleeps anywhere near a flight of stairs, you should probably create some sort of blockage so that they don’t fall.

For most children, night terrors go away as they grow up. It’s important to remember that this issue will be relatively short-term. In the meantime, the preventative steps listed above may help alleviate some of the symptoms.

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