Night Terrors In Children: What Are They And How to Handle Them
If you were to ask any parent of a child who experiences night terrors, my guess is they would say that night terrors are appropriately named because they are, in fact, terrifying. Undoubtedly, the sight of your child waking up screaming in fear without provocation can be unsettling at best.
However, parents can take heart that their child is not actually awake and aware of the goings-on in the throes of a night terror. As a result, it’s really only frightening to the parent witnessing it. The even better news is that night terrors in kids have no long-term effects, and very often, they’ll disappear just as quickly as they appeared.
What are night terrors?
Night terrors (also known as sleep terrors) fall into a category of sleep disorders called parasomnias — a group of sleep disorders that involve some type of action or movement (think: sleepwalking and sleeptalking). According to Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, “A night terror is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare, but with a far more dramatic presentation.”
When a child experiences a night terror, she/he will suddenly jolt up in distress. In all likelihood, the child will scream, shout, and thrash about.
Additional signs and symptoms of night terrors include:
During these events, your child’s eyes may be open, but it’s important to remember that they are not awake. Consequently, your best efforts to console your child will only fall on deaf ears.
Night terrors usually occur between the ages of 3 and 12, and according to Dr. Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, Licensed clinical psychologist and Director of the Behavioral Sleep Program at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, “sleep terrors are a normal part of development, and they typically peak around age 3.”
Night terrors versus nightmares
Although night terrors and nightmares may look similar, further inspection shows that they are quite different.
Nightmares tend to occur later in the sleep cycle when REM stages run a bit longer, and it is not uncommon to experience nightmares in the wee hours of the morning. While children may wake up feeling unsettled from a nightmare, they can and will respond to soothing sounds or a parent who comforts them. The fact that nightmares happen during REM sleep also plays a large part in your child’s ability to remember his/her bad dream.
On the other hand, night terrors tend to occur in the early part of your child’s sleep cycle, very often in the first 2 – 3 hours, and during a non-REM phase. During a night terror, your child may be sitting upright, possibly screaming or squirming about, and clearly in distress.
Dr. Schneeberg explains that “night terrors differ from nightmares in that the child seems confused during a sleep terror, he/she is hard to wake and does not recall the sleep terror in the morning.” That said, during a night terror, there is little chance of your child responding to your attempts at comforting them.
What causes night terrors?
Night terrors can be caused by a variety of factors, including:
Interestingly, research shows that night terrors can also be genetic. In fact, a 2015 study indicated children with at least one parent that sleepwalked are far more likely to experience night terrors.
How should parents handle night terrors?
Night terrors in kids can be unsettling, to say the least. So it’s only natural to want to comfort your child and “fix it.” But according to Dr. Schneeberg, “a parent’s job is not to wake the child but to keep them safe during a sleep terror.” So, instead of trying to wake your child (which may not work anyway), it’s best to simply stay close and stay calm until the event is over and your child falls back asleep.
If your child experiences frequent night terrors, parents may want to make sure that the child’s bedroom is safe enough so that when a night terror begins, your child will be ok until you can get to them.
Dr. Schneeberg also shares the following tips to help parents deal with their child’s night terrors.
Make sure your child is getting adequate sleep.
Make sure your child can fall asleep fairly independently so that their “sleep crutch” (usually a parent) isn’t missing when they wake up at night
Be sure that the room your child falls asleep in is the same room they wake up in later
Make sure your child’s room looks and sounds the same in the middle of the night as it did at bedtime
When to see a doctor
The good news is that most children simply outgrow night terrors, and very often, they’ll go away on their own. Again, night terrors are totally normal, but you may want to consult your doctor if:
Night terrors become more frequent
You have safety concerns for your child
They cause excessive disruption to your child’s sleep (or others in the home)
They lead to daytime sleepiness (or otherwise affect your child) during the day
While night terrors can be scary and upsetting to watch, it’s important to remember that your child is not experiencing the heightened level of fear that she/he is projecting. It’s really only the parent in the room that’s actually aware of what’s going on.
When your child experiences night terrors, do your best to keep them safe while they flail and thrash about, be patient, and let the event pass. Night terrors are a normal part of your child’s development and only a minor blip. The good news is there are no long-term health concerns to worry about, and more often than not, they will go away on their own.
National Center for Biotechnology Information. (July 2015). Childhood Sleepwalking And Sleep Terrors: A Longitudinal Study of Prevalence And Familial Aggregation. Retrieved October 28, 2020, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25938617/