Most parents have comforted their child after the occasional nightmare. But if your child has ever had what's known as a night terror (or sleep terror), his or her fear was likely inconsolable, no matter what you tried.
A night terror is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare, but is far more dramatic. Though night terrors can be alarming for parents who witness them, they're not usually cause for concern or a sign of a deeper medical issue.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Night Terrors?
During a night terror, a child might:
suddenly sit upright in bed
shout out or scream in distress
have faster breathing and a quicker heartbeat
act upset and scared
After a few minutes, or sometimes longer, the child simply calms down and returns to sleep.
Unlike nightmares, which kids often remember, kids won't have any memory of a night terror the next day because they were in deep sleep when it happened — and there are no mental images to recall.
What Causes Night Terrors?
Night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep.
Sleep happens in several stages. We have dreams — including nightmares — during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage. Night terrors happen during deep non-REM sleep. A night terror is not technically a dream, but more like a sudden reaction of fear that happens during the transition from one sleep stage to another.
Night terrors usually happen about 2 or 3 hours after a child falls asleep, when sleep moves from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep. Usually this transition is a smooth one. But sometimes, a child becomes upset and frightened — and that fear reaction is a night terror.
Night terrors are relatively rare — they happen in only 3%–6% of kids, while almost every child will have a nightmare occasionally. Night terrors usually happen in kids between 4 and 12 years old, but have been reported in babies as young as 18 months. They seem to be a little more common among boys.
Some kids may inherit a tendency for night terrors — about 80% who have them have a family member who also had them or sleepwalking (a similar type of sleep disturbance).
A child might have a single night terror or several before they stop. Most of the time, night terrors simply disappear on their own as the nervous system matures.
How Can I Help My Child?
Night terrors can be very upsetting for parents, who might feel helpless when they can't comfort their child. The best way to handle a night terror is to wait it out patiently and make sure your child doesn't get hurt if thrashing around. Kids usually will settle down and return to sleep on their own in a few minutes.
It's best not to try to wake kids during a night terror. This usually doesn't work, and kids who do wake are likely to be disoriented and confused, and may take longer to settle down and go back to sleep.
There's no treatment for night terrors, but you can help prevent them. Try to:
create a bedtime routine that's simple and relaxing
make sure your child gets enough rest
help your child from becoming overtired
don't let your child stay up too late
If your child has a night terror around the same time every night, you can try waking him or her up about 15–30 minutes before then to see if that helps prevent it.
Understanding night terrors can ease your worry — and help you get a good night's sleep yourself. But if night terrors happen repeatedly, talk to your doctor about whether a referral to a sleep specialist is needed.