What are Night Terrors?

October 1, 2020

What is a Night Terror?

Night Terrors are a form of sleep disruption that occurs during non-Rapid Eye Movement (non-REM) sleep or the deeper phases of sleep. Unlike, nightmares, which occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep or lighter phases of sleep. In children, night terrors will typically present between the ages of 3 and 12 years with a peak onset around 3.5 years of age. It is estimated that approx. 1-6% of children will experience night terrors.

When do Night Terrors occur?

Night Terrors are more likely to occur in the earlier phases of sleep. Parents often report that the terror will occur before the parent goes to bed themselves. So, prior to midnight.

How do I know it is a Night Terror and Not a Nightmare?

Night terrors can be really distressing for parents. Your child is likely to present with screaming, very distressed, thrashing about. They may sweat and have rapid breathing and heart rate. Generally, they will sit bolt upright, with eyes wide open. They appear to be awake rather than asleep. Your child is somewhere between being asleep and awake. It is like they are transitioning through a sleep phase and are somewhat in a sleep limbo. Your best efforts to calm them down or wake them actually appear to make the situation worse and exasperate the terror.

What should I do if my child is having a Night Terror?

  1. Don't try and wake them. As you may have already experienced, trying to wake them actually can make the terror worse or continue the terror for longer.
  2. It is best to be supportive, present, and ensure that your child is safe. Remove anything from around them that they might bang off or hurt themselves on. Do not touch your child, simply make sure they are safe.
  3. Wait it out. This can be very hard for parents who are dealing with terror. It is best to sit and be patient and allow the terror to run its course. How long do I wait? As long as it takes. Some terrors will go on for minutes and others longer. Tag teaming with another caregiver may be a means of support during this.
  4. Remember that your child won’t recall the terror. They will have no memory of it. It is more distressing for you than it is for your child.

What can cause Night Terrors?

The exact causes of night terrors are not known but continually studied. It is thought that too little sleep or overtiredness can contribute to night terrors in children. So, ensuring that you make sleep a priority in your home and put healthy sleep habits in place for your child is essential. Make sure that they are getting enough sleep as recommended by age range and activity levels.

What should I do if my child is having regular Night Terrors?

If your child is having regular terrors, I would recommend that you start to keep a log and track them. Take notes on how they present, the time of the terror, and the duration. Coupled with that start keeping a food and activity diary for your child to see if you can find any correlation between something that is happening in the daytime with when a terror presents itself.

If you are finding a pattern around the timing of terrors occurring you may and try to slightly wake your child approx. 20-30 mins prior to that timeframe. This technique may disrupt the sleeping pattern enough to shift the terror out and push them into the next sleep cycle. Techniques like this are worth trying however they may not always produce the fix that you are looking for.

Ultimately, if you are experiencing regular night terrors with your child and it is bringing you concern link in with your family doctor. Make sure you are armed with your log or diary of what has been happening so that you can immediately show your doctor the frequency of the terrors. Sometimes, they do require further investigation, and a referral to a pediatrician or sleep clinic may be recommended.

Erica Hargaden is a certified child sleep consultant with her private practice Babogue. She is the creator of The Sleep Series which is an online sleep program designed around her 7 Steps to Better Sleep. To learn more check out @babogue_sleep, www.babogue.com, or email info@babogue.com.

 

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