Night terrors (a.k.a. sleep terrors) are a condition where a child is suddenly roused from deep sleep and appears to be extremely scared or upset. During these episodes (which usually occur in the first half of the night) you may find that your child is crying, looking around, or even moving, but they don’t seem to recognize you or react as they normally would. The episodes can last anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour and can occur nightly, though most children won’t remember what happened once morning hits.
It is nearly impossible to wake or comfort a child experiencing a night terror, so the little things you might do to ease a nightmare (hugs, talking to your child, turning on the light) are not likely to work—though that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways you can help.
An estimated 1%-6% of children experience night terrors. Boys and girls are equally affected. Children of all races also seem to be affected equally. It is a disorder that is usually outgrown by adolescence.
Night terrors can start as early as 18 months, but typically occur in children ages 3-12, with a peak onset at age 3 1/2.
Night Terror on Nightmare?
There are two main types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM). Non-REM sleep has stages, and night terrors happen during the transition from stage 3 to stage 4. They typically occur approximately 90 minutes after the child falls asleep.
Night terrors are distinctly different from the common nightmares, which occur during REM sleep. Night terrors are characterized by frequent recurrent episodes of intense crying and fear during sleep, with difficulty arousing the child. Unlike nightmares, most children do not recall a dream after a night terror episode, and they usually do not remember the episode the next morning.
Symptoms of Night Terrors
The typical night terror episode usually begins approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep. The child sits up in bed and screams, appearing awake but is confused, disoriented, and unresponsive to stimuli. Although the child seems to be awake, the child does not seem to be aware of the parents’ presence and usually does not talk. The child may thrash around in bed and does not respond to comforting by the parents.
Most episodes last 1-2 minutes, but they may last up to 30 minutes before the child relaxes and returns to normal sleep.
We know this is a hard one, but the most important thing is to let the episode run its course. Do not try to wake your child up and force physical contact—too much interference can drag out the length of the night terror and, unfortunately, a child in the middle of a night terror can’t really be calmed down. Just make sure your child is safe (especially if they are moving or trying to get out of bed) and wait for the storm to pass.
Night Terrors Causes
Night terrors tend to run in families. While most of the time they have no specific cause, night terrors can sometimes result from:
- Stressful life events
- Sleep deprivation
- Medications that affect the central nervous system (the brain)
- Recent anesthesia given for surgery
Will Night Terrors Hurt My Child?
Believe it or not, night terrors are considered “benign” conditions; they do not have any harmful impact on the child experiencing them. But as you probably know, there is a very real and negative effect for the parents of children with night terrors.
Many parents develop altered sleep habits themselves and are left with a lot of stress about their child’s well-being. This can have severe effects on a parent’s quality of life (after all, constant worrying on too-little sleep is never a recipe for happiness). That’s why addressing night terrors can be just as much of a relief for the parents as it is for the child experiencing them.
Are There Options Available for Treating Night Terrors?
Yes, there are different treatments which include things like sleep management, lifestyle changes, home remedies, medication, and surgery for related conditions. Medication, for example, is only prescribed in extreme cases where night terrors are very frequent or dangerous to the child.
One very successful night terror treatment is called scheduled awakenings, which involves waking your child 15-30 minutes before the night terror typically occurs. Clinical studies starting back in 1988 have shown that scheduled awakenings can completely stop night terrors—which is also the method that inspired the creators of Lully Night Guardian.