Your child wakes up suddenly in the middle of the night. They’re screaming, thrashing, and making incoherent noises. But no matter what you do, you can’t console them. Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are different from a typical nightmare. They have a far more dramatic presentation.
Fortunately, night terrors are typically not a cause for alarm, or a sign of a larger medical problem. Your child is actually still asleep during night terrors and won’t remember them in the morning. Of course, night terrors can be upsetting for parents. They have to watch their child go through this seemingly horrific experience, whether they’re awake or not.
If you don’t know how to stop them, your kid’s night terrors can be a nightmare for you, too. Read on to learn more about night terrors and for tips on how to reduce them.
Why do night terrors happen?
Night terrors are normal, but relatively rare. Just 6.5 percent of children experience them. Night terrors are considered a type of sleep disorder. They’re thought to be triggered by overstimulation of the central nervous system during sleep.
They are more commonly seen in children with a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking. In other words, researchers believe that a predisposition for night terrors is genetic.
Night terrors may be triggered by the following:
- being overtired or fatigued
- certain medications
- full bladder
- anxiety or stress
- sudden noise (like a telephone ringing or a train passing)
- sleeping in an unfamiliar environment
They usually occur between ages 4 and 12, but they can occur in children as young as 18 months. Typically, children grow out of night terrors as the nervous system matures.
What do night terrors look like?
Night terrors cause infants and children to appear to wake up during the night suddenly. They might sit upright in bed with a frightening scream, extreme panic, and heavy breathing.
Children may talk in their sleep, or even jump out of bed and run around. They might thrash their arms and kick their legs. Their eyes may even be open, but they’re not fully awake.
Night terrors may last up to 15 minutes, but usually last just a few minutes. After a night terror, a child will usually calm down and go back to sleep. In the morning, oddly enough, they won’t remember the experience at all.
Night terrors vs. nightmares: What’s the difference?
Night terrors aren’t the same as nightmares. The two actually happen at completely different points in the sleep cycle.
Sleep occurs in several stages. Each stage is associated with different brain activity. Dreams, including nightmares, occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage. This is a lighter sleep stage where a person can be easily awakened.
Night terrors, on the other hand, occur during deep sleep (stage 4) or during the transition between deep sleep and REM sleep. This is usually around two to three hours after falling asleep.
Kids often remember their nightmares. But they won’t have any memories of a night terror the next day because there aren’t any mental images to recall.
What should parents do during night terrors?
Night terrors can be incredibly scary for parents. But rest assured, your child is safe. The best thing to do for your child is to wait until the night terror passes and your child goes back to sleep. Night terrors may last up to 15 minutes.
In general, here are some best practices for night terrors:
- don’t attempt to wake up your child; they might not recognize you and could become more distressed and confused and it might take longer to settle back to sleep
- keep yourself calm
- make sure your child doesn’t get hurt by the thrashing around; move hard and sharp items out of the way
After the episode has ended, it's OK to wake up your child. If you think the night terror was triggered by a full bladder, encourage them to use the toilet before going back to sleep.
Tips for preventing night terrors
Night terrors can be very upsetting for a parent or caretaker. They might feel helpless and panicked because there’s nothing they can do to help their child.
There's no treatment for night terrors, but you can help prevent them.
Try the following ideas.
1. Create a relaxing bedtime routine
Stick to a bedtime routine that's easy and relaxing, like taking a bath and reading a bedtime story. Avoid music, television, or anything arousing right before bed.
2. Let your child rest
Make sure your child is getting enough rest. Don’t let your child stay up too late and get overtired.
If you live where there is a lot of traffic noise, you might want to invest in a white noise machine.
3. Keep your child comfortable
Don’t let your child get overheated at night. Make sure they are dressed appropriately for the temperature. Also make sure your child uses the toilet before bedtime and avoid giving them a drink just before bed.
4. Disrupt their sleep pattern
If the night terrors occur frequently at a specific time every night, wake your child 15 minutes before the expected time every night for a week. This can disrupt their sleep pattern to break the cycle of night terrors.
It’s normal for your kid to experience a night terror on occasion. Most children eventually grow out of them. If they’re occurring several times a night or happen most nights, talk to your pediatrician. Overtiredness and/or stress can trigger night terrors in children.
Your pediatrician might want to check if something else is interrupting your child’s sleep and causing the night terrors. Large tonsils or sleep apnea, for example, could lead to breathing problems that interrupt your child’s sleep patterns. Your doctor can answer your questions and refer you to a sleep specialist, if needed. Since certain medications may trigger night terrors, talk to your doctor about any medications your child takes.
Note: There isn’t any connection between night terrors and mental disorders in children. There is little cause for concern and your child isn’t in any danger.