Night Terrors In Children

By:    Published: September 13, 2012

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Night terrors can be frightening for parents. No one wants to be woken up by their child's terrified screams and many parents don't know what to do about it. The good news is that night terrors are usually outgrown and leave no lasting effect. Read on to learn more about this sleeping disorder that affects children and what you can do to help your child.

What Are Night Terrors?

Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, is a sleep disorder that is characterized by episodes of screaming and flailing in terror while asleep. Often those who are affected by night terrors are also sleep walkers.

Night terrors typically affect children between the ages of 3 and 12, and they affect boys more often than girls. On occasion, adults experience night terrors as well, but this is rare. Night terrors do tend to run in families and can be linked to certain medical conditions.

Overall, night terrors are rare and only affect a small percentage of children. It's also important to note that vivid nightmares are not the same as night terrors. Nightmares occur during REM sleep and can frighten children leaving them afraid to go back to sleep. Night terrors occur during a deeper sleep and often the child doesn't remember the terror once awake.

Symptoms

During the night terror, children might:

  • Scream
  • Make violent movements
  • Appear very frightened or confused
  • Appear to be awake, with their eyes open
  • Be sweating
  • Breathe heavily
  • Have a rapid heart beat
  • Have dilated pupils
  • Get out of bed and run around

Though it is rare, adults who experience night terrors may act out in violent behavior, like lashing out with a kick or punch while asleep, posing a danger to themselves or others.

Causes

There is no single cause of night terrors, but there are a number of factors that contribute to them.

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Fever
  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Anxiety
  • Unfamiliar surroundings
  • Head injuries
  • Other sleeping disorders

In adults, problems like sleep apnea, migraines and drug or alcohol use can also cause night terrors.

What Can Parents Do To Help Their Child?

Treatment for night terrors isn't always necessary. Parents simply have to wait it out, as heartbreaking as that can be. But there are things that parents can do to help keep their child from harming themselves or others.

Parents can gently hold their child and speak softly to their child until the terror is over. Parents shouldn't shout or shake their child during a night terror as this could make the terror worse.

If the night terrors are associated with another medical or mental health problem, the treatment for that problem will usually help with the terror. If the night terrors are related to stress or anxiety, a therapist or counselor can help. Sometimes family upsets, moves, or starting school can cause enough anxiety to cause night terrors and family therapists can help. (For more information on anxiety causes by starting school, read Separation Anxiety In Children Going To School.)

If the child sleepwalks while having a night terror, it's important that parents make sure that the child doesn't get hurt or get into a dangerous situation. Often times, sleepwalking children will try and walk outside in the middle of the night or do other things that are equally as dangerous, such as falling down stairs, so parents should try to gently direct their child back to safety. There is a no danger in waking sleepwalking children if they are in danger, though it will likely upset them and they will be confused.

Medication is not typically used to treat night terrors in children, though in adults, especially if linked to other problems medications can sometimes be used.

Usually it isn't necessary for a child to see a doctor, but if parents notice the following signs, they should contact their child's doctor:

  • Drooling, jerking or stiffening of the child's body
  • If the night terrors continue for more than seven consecutive nights
  • The episode lasts longer than 30 minutes
  • The night terror happens later in the evening. Typically night terrors occur shortly after the child falls asleep.
  • The child has fears that extend into the daytime
  • If the child's night terrors could be connected to family stress
  • If the parent has any other concerns about their child's night terrors

Night terrors can be nerve wracking for parents, but they are seldom ever serious and the child will typically outgrow them. Parents also shouldn't confuse a nightmare for a night terror, as they are very different. The best thing to do is to comfort and lull the child back to sleep until the night terror passes.

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