Night Terrors

Mother comforting her baby

What are night terrors?

Night terrors are a type of sleep disorder. Night terrors are episodes of fear, screaming, and erratic behaviour that occurs when your child arouses from a deep sleep. Night terrors are often accompanied by sleepwalking. Your child may also speak without making sense. Usually your child is not fully conscious. Night terrors are common in children younger than 6 years old.

Unlike nightmares, children who have night terrors rarely wake up during the episode. They often do not have memories of the night terror. During the episode, however, children will show signs of fear, anxiety, and general disturbance. It is common for a parent to become worried while witnessing their child’s night terror. A night terror episode usually lasts a few minutes.

While they may appear scary, night terrors rarely have long-term health consequences in children. Infrequent night terrors do not usually require medical assistance. Children usually outgrow night terrors by their teenage years.

Signs and symptoms of night terrors

Night terrors usually occur after the first or second hour of sleeping. During a night terror, your child may appear pale, aggravated, and sweaty. He may sit up or lay yelling or crying in his bed. Your child’s eyes may be open, but he is unresponsive. The child may be walking around his room. He is not easily awoken.

Other signs or symptoms during a night terror:

  • kicking or thrashing

  • breathing heavily

  • racing pulse

  • staring wide-eyed

The night terror episode can last as long as 20 to 30 minutes. The child usually falls back asleep quickly.

Causes of night terrors

Night terrors are not caused by a mental or physical illness. It is unclear why some normal, healthy children get night terrors and others do not.

Risk factors

Some doctors say that night terrors can run in families.

Complications

Night terrors need not be a concern for parents. If your child also sleepwalks, he should be protected from harming himself.

How you can help your child with night terrors

There are a few easy ways for you to help your child reduce the frequency of night terrors. Here are a few tips:

Get calm before bed

Encourage your child to have a regular routine before bedtime. Calming activites such as reading or bathing may help your child unwind. Avoid energetic activities like athletics, watching television, or boisterous play right before bedtime. 

What to do during your child’s night terror

The best treatment is to wait it out. You can try to gently guide your child back to bed. Do this while speaking quietly and calmly. Do not shake your child or try to wake him up.

Try to clear the clutter around your child’s bed. You can also lock interior doors or block doorways or stairways with a gate. These safety precautions can prevent tripping or another type of injury. If your child is capable of climbing a gate, you might put an alarm, such as a cowbell, on his door. This way, you will be awakened if he sleepwalks.

How a doctor can help your child with night terrors

Your child’s doctor will ask you and your child questions about his sleep routine and the night terrors. The doctor may do a physical or psychological exam to pinpoint any conditions that may be leading to the night arousal. In more severe cases, your child may be asked to participate in an overnight sleep lab.

Key points

  • Night terrors usually go away before adolescence.

  • During an episode, do not shake or wake your child. Instead, stay calm and wait it out.

  • To prevent injury, clean clutter and fix possible hazards around your child’s bed and the home.

  • If your child’s night terrors are associated with an underlying condition, your child may need additional treatment.

 Mark Feldman, MD, FRCPC

6/8/2011




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