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Do you know if your child is having night terrors? (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

Do you know if your child is having night terrors? (photo credit: BigStockPhoto.com)

If you have ever had a child with night terrors, you know that there is a big difference between a normal nightmare and a night terror.  The biggest difference between these two types of sleep disruption is that they happen during different stages of sleep.  Nightmares, which happen to everyone occasionally, are essentially bad dreams that occur while the sleeper is in REM sleep, the stage of sleep where dreaming happens.  Night terrors, on the other hand, actually occur during deep sleep or during the transition from deep sleep to REM sleep.   While it is common to remember a nightmare, most people who experience night terrors have no recollection of the experience in part because of the different type of brain activity experienced during these two sleep stages.

Although anyone can have a night terror, small children are the most likely to experience them.  For parents, this can be a frightening experience.  Although completely asleep, a person having a night terror may have their eyes open and appear to be completely awake.  The inability to interact with that person, especially if it is your small child, in a way that reassures them can be difficult for parents to deal with.  In order to help, here are some helpful tips for handling night terrors.

1.     Don’t Freak Out

Staying calm is one of the most important things you can do to help your child.  Speak in a calm, reassuring voice and do what you can to keep your child safe until the night terror subsides.

2.     Squash Stress

Although there is known cause of night terrors, many experts believe that stress can be a contributing factor and may even be a trigger for night terrors in small children.  If your child starts experiencing night terrors, do what you can to eliminate any unnecessary stress until the problem subsides.

3.     Keep Things Calm

Look for ways to make things calmer during the day.  Look for things that may be affecting your child’s emotional state during the day.  It is likely best not to sleep away from home until the night terrors subside.

4.     Set a Schedule

Try to keep a consistent schedule whenever possible so that your child is getting to bed at the same time every night and not getting over-tired.  Following the same bedtime routine can also help keep night terrors at bay.

5.     Environmental Factors

Another theory about what causes night terrors is that they occur when a sleeper is awakened during deep sleep.  This can result from external stimuli like lights and sounds.  Make sure that your child’s room isn’t being subjected to excess external light and that any sound disruption is minimized.  Paying attention to what happens immediately preceding each night terror can help determine if these external elements are contributing factors.

6.     Don’t Force Them Awake

Night terrors are different from nightmares and one way they differ is that it is not a good idea to force someone experiencing a night terror to wake up.  This can cause problems and leave your child disoriented.  Let the night terror take its course and remind yourself that your child is ok and isn’t even likely to remember the incident.

7.     Take Their Temp

Night terrors in some children can occur when the child spikes a fever.  Taking their temperature after they have calmed down may alert you to an underlying illness.