Night terrors are very different from your run-of-the-mill nightmare, and if your child ever experiences one, you’ll know it.
For parents, witnessing your child go through a night terror can be a frightening experience. According to kidshealth.org, during a night terror, a child might suddenly sit upright in bed and shout out or scream in distress. The child’s breathing and heartbeat might be faster, he or she might sweat, thrash around, and act upset and scared. And, though they may appear to be awake, they are actually still completely asleep, which means they are likely inconsolable, no matter what you try.
What Is a Night Terror?
Night terrors are considered to be a parasomnia -an undesired occurrence during sleep- like sleepwalking. Night terrors are most common in children between the ages of three and twelve, though, anyone can suffer from them. Night terrors can be alarming, and difficult to watch, however, they are usually not a cause for concern or a sign of a deeper medical problem. Most people outgrow them by their teen years.
According to the Mayo Clinic, during a night terror episode a person might:
- Sit up in bed
- Scream or shout
- Kick and thrash
- Sweat, breathe heavily and have a racing pulse
- Be hard to awaken, but if awakened be confused
- Be inconsolable
- Stare wide-eyed
- Get out of bed and run around the house
- Engage in aggressive behavior (more common in adults)
Because they usually stay asleep through a night terror episode, the sufferer usually has no recollection of the events that took place and are unaware that they had any kind of issue.
Night Terror VS Nightmare
A typical night terror episode usually begins approximately 90 minutes to three hours after falling asleep. They happen when sleep transitions from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep. Most of the time the child will go through the transition with no problem, but occasionally they can become agitated and frightened. Their reaction to the fear is a night terror. The episode can last anywhere from a few minutes to a half an hour before the child returns to normal sleep. Most of the time children do not wake up during a night terror episode and the inability to interact with them in a reassuring manner can be difficult to deal with as a parent.
Nightmares occur in the REM sleep state, often in the very early morning hours. Children will wake from a nightmare feeling upset or scared, and often seek out and respond to comfort from a parent. Often they can recall parts of the nightmare and may need a parent to help them feel safe enough to go back to sleep.
Potential Night Terror Causes
The exact cause for night terrors is unknown. However, according to kidshealth.org, experts believe that night terrors might be caused by the over-arousal of a child’s immature central nervous system during sleep. They state that some kids may inherit a tendency for this over-arousal — about 80% who have night terrors have a family member who also had them or sleepwalking (a similar type of sleep disturbance). The Mayo Clinic lists the following as potential causes of night terrors:
- Sleep deprivation and extreme tiredness
- Stress and/or traumatic life events
- Certain medications
- Too much caffeine
- Sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings
- Lights or noise
- Overfull bladder
- Conditions that keep your child from getting quality sleep, such as restless legs syndrome (RLS) or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)
Coping with Night Terrors
Your child will usually settle down and return to sleep on their own in a few minutes. The best thing you can do is to wait it out patiently and make sure they don’t get hurt if they are thrashing around. You might need to gently restrain your child and try to get him or her back into bed. Remember to speak softly and calmly and avoid shaking or shouting at your child. You should not attempt to wake them. Attempts usually fail, but if they work, your child is likely to be agitated, confused, and disoriented; and it will take you longer to get them to go back to sleep.
Though there is no actual treatment for night terrors, there are things you can do to help prevent them:
- Create a simple and relaxing bedtime routine and stick to it.
- Help reduce your child’s stress. If your child has frequent night terrors that you feel may be stress related, talk to their doctor. They may suggest meeting with a therapist or counselor. Cognitive behavioral therapy, hypnosis, biofeedback and relaxation therapy may help.
- Make sure they are getting enough rest.
- Avoid caffeine in the late afternoon/evening hours.
- Don’t allow them to stay up too late and become overtired.
If you are concerned for your child’s well-being, consult their doctor. The Mayo Clinic suggests you prepare for the conversation with your child’s doctor by:
- Keeping a sleep diary for two weeks before the appointment to help their doctor understand what’s causing the sleep terrors. In the morning, you record as much as you know of the bedtime ritual, quality of sleep, and so on. At the end of the day, you record behaviors that may affect sleep, such as caffeine consumption and any medications taken.
- Making a list of any symptoms your child is experiencing, including any that may seem unrelated to the reason for the appointment.
- Bringing key personal information, including any major stresses or recent life changes.
- Making a list of all medications, vitamins or other supplements that your child takes, and the dosages.
- Knowing the answers to the following questions: When did the night terrors begin? How often do the night terrors occur? Have there been sleep problems in the past? Does anyone else in your family have sleep problems?
- Bringing a family member or friend along, if possible, to help you remember what the doctor says.
- Making a list of questions to ask the doctor to help make the most of your time together. Such as: What is likely causing these symptoms? What kinds of tests are needed? What’s the best course of action? Do you recommend seeing a specialist?
Understanding that night terrors are usually harmless will hopefully help ease your mind. However, if you feel that your child’s night terrors happen too frequently, and nothing you try is helping, consulting a sleep specialist may be beneficial. At Valley Sleep Center, we do provide pediatric sleep studies and have a pediatric sleep specialist on staff who is excellent with children. We can help put your mind at ease and help you and your child get back to sleeping peacefully throughout the night.