The Parents Guide to Night Terrors

night terrorsIt’s going on 11 p.m. and the house is cozily dark, warm and quiet – except for the excruciating, ear-piercing, blood-curling scream that suddenly erupts from your anxious child’s bedroom.

Welcome to the woeful world of night terrors.

Night terrors are relatively rare, with the KidsHealth website reporting they affect only 3 to 6 percent of children. But that doesn’t mean they’re not incredibly scary.

Night terrors can make your anxious child scream, sweat, hyperventilate and thrash around violently. You may notice a rapid heart rate, dilated pupils and a totally confused and disoriented state. Your child may remain writhing in this distressed and horrific state for 10 to 20 minutes – then roll over and go back to sleep as if nothing ever happened.

And, according to your child, nothing ever did. Kids often don’t remember anything about the night terrors once they wake up the next morning. They are not likely to remember them, and they sure as heck won’t be able to tell you why they happened.

Nightmares vs. Night Terrors

nightmareUnlike nightmares that can leave a huge imprint in a child’s memory, night terrors can come and go with your child being none the wiser. You can also usually hug or otherwise comfort a child to calm him or her down after a nightmare, while no amount of calming is likely to stop a night terror in progress.

Night terrors typically come within the first few hours of sleep, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health’s Medline website. Nightmares hit once the deeper, rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep sets in. In fact, night terrors are believed to intrude while your child’s sleep is transitioning from the non-REM to the REM stage. While this transition usually goes off without a hitch, it can be disrupted by a sudden, inexplicable fear reaction that results in a night terror episode.

Kids may be reluctant to go back to sleep after nightmares while sleep can return pretty much instantly after a night terror episode. You child may suffer from one night terror and never have another again. Or he or she may suffer from an entire series of night terrors over an extended period of time.

Most night terrors occur when kids are between the ages of 4 and 12, although cases have been documented in children as young as 18 months. Nightmares can haunt all ages, any time, while night terrors typically disappear once your child begins to get older.

That means there is really good news for parents of anxious children:

Night terrors more often than not go away on their own. 

Why Night Terrors Happen

Mummy movies, horror stories and TV violence may be the things of nightmares, but they do not necessarily contribute to night terrors. The exact cause of night terrors is still unknown, although they can definitely be triggered by various issues, Anxiety is at the top of the list of potential triggers, which means your anxious child may be a very viable candidate for suffering from these scary things. Other triggers noted by Mayo Clinic and Medline include:

  • Stress
  • Conflict
  • Fatigue and sleep deprivation
  • Fever
  • Lights or noise
  • Sleeping in an unfamiliar place or with unfamiliar surroundings

Underlying conditions or substances can also contribute to night terrors, such as:

  • Sleep apnea and other disorders marked by abnormal breathing patters while sleeping
  • Migraines
  • Head injuries
  • Certain medications, such as sleeping pills, sedatives and some antihistamines
  • Alcohol and illegal drugs

While the cause may remain unknown, it is known that the terrors stem from the central nervous system becoming overly aroused during sleep. The central nervous system regulates sleep and waking brain activity, says, and children’s central nervous systems are still maturing.

Night terrors, and the tendency for over-arousal of the nervous system, can also run in the family. KidsHealth reports an estimated 80 percent of people who suffer from night terrors have another family member who also suffers from night terrors or the similar disturbance of sleep walking.

Should I Take My Child to the Doctor?

Seeking outside help for night terrors may not be necessary in all cases, but it may be helpful in others. Medline says to get thy child to a doctor if the night terrors are severe, occur regularly, occur frequently and come with symptoms other than those expected by the terrors. A doctor visit may also be in order if your anxious child’s night terrors result in injury, either your child’s or someone else’s.

“If stress or anxiety seems to be contributing to the sleep terrors, your doctor may suggest meeting with a therapist or counselor,” Mayo Clinic says. “Cognitive behavior therapy, hypnosis, biofeedback and relaxation therapy may help.”

Other ways to help your child alleviate stress and anxiety include mindfulness, breathing exercises, proper nutrition and yoga.

To Medicate or Not to Medicate? 

Even if you do head to the doc, Mayo Clinic says medication is usually not the answer. Night terrors may be triggered by excess anxiety or other conditions, in which case the condition, not the night terrors, should be targeted.

In cases where the night terrors are consistently disrupting your lives or your doctor feels medication is the path to take, Mayo Clinic notes night benzodiazepines or certain antidepressants have been prescribed for the night terrors.

How to Cope with Night Terrors 

alarm clockOne of the worst things you can do while children are experiencing night terrors is to try to wake them up, according to KidsHealth. As long as you ensure your child will not thrash into objects that can injure him or her, your child will most likely calm down and resume sleeping.

What you can do, especially if your child’s night terrors are prompted by anxiety and stress, is to make bedtime and life less stressful for your child. Kids Health and Mayo Clinic offer a number of tips for coping with existing night terrors and preventing future night terrors from taking hold.

Create a bedtime routine. Regular routines are important for anxious children; schedules typically mean safety. Choose a regular bedtime and stick with it! Engage in a soothing activity before bed, such as giving your child a warm bath, reading a story or listening to calming music. Make the bedtime routine a relaxing highlight of the day that’s conducive to relaxation and sleep.

Ensure your child gets adequate sleep. Children need more sleep than adults. Eleven to 13 hours is the recommended dose for children ages 3 to 5; children ages 6 to 12 should get between 10 to 11 hours of sleep. Fatigue and lack of sleep are on the list of night terror triggers and adequate sleep doubles as an overall way to reduce stress, alleviate anxiety and perhaps even keep those tiresome tantrums at bay.

Establish a safe environment. A safe environment for sleeping works on two levels when it comes to night terrors. For starters, you want to make sure the environment is safe if and when your anxious child begins to thrash, kick, sleepwalk or otherwise engage in movements associated with night terrors. Safety gates across doorways, locked windows and the removal of sharp objects can make a room less prone to causing injury.

Your children’s sleeping quarters should also be a place where they feel safe and secure. Take out the ninja killer toys and the giant scowling clown and put in a few soft Teddy bears or other comforting objects. Even if night terrors are not triggered by horrific things in the bedroom, most people generally get better quality sleep if they’re not being stared at by an evil clown doll.


Photo Credits: Hsin Ho, matsuyuki