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How to Help a Child With Night Terrors

Updated on November 3, 2014
Night terrors in children are usually harmless for the child yet heartbreaking for the adult.
Night terrors in children are usually harmless for the child yet heartbreaking for the adult. | Source

What are Night Terrors?

A night terror is a sudden feeling of extreme fear that awakens a sleeping person, usually during slow-wave sleep, and is not associated with a dream or nightmare.

Source: Dictionary.com

What Causes Night Terrors in Children?

Night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep. This may happen because the CNS (which regulates sleep and waking brain activity) is still maturing in children.

Night terrors have been noted in kids who are:

  • overtired
  • ill
  • stressed
  • fatigued

Children who are sensitive to change may also experience a night terror when their normal sleeping routine or other day-to-day routine is disrupted.

What Happens During a Night Terror?

During a night terror a child may seem awake, eyes open, sitting up, standing up, thrashing around, screaming in distress, disorientated, etc.

There may also be physical signs of terror such as increased heart rate, sweating, or heavy breathing.

As a parent this is a very scary time.

As a parent find peace in the fact that your child will not remember the details of his or her night terror and it's affecting you more than it is them.

When Do Night Terrors Occur?

The obvious answer would be that night terrors occur at night.

A better question would be at what point during a child's sleep cycle do night terrors occur?

Let's start with a brief explanation of a "normal" sleep cycle.

Source

A normal sleep pattern consists of two states of sleep referred to as rapid eye movement (REM) and non rapid eye movement (NREM).

During a normal nights sleep, the body cycles between NREM and REM sleep. Typically, people begin the sleep cycle with a period of NREM sleep. Each stage of NREM sleep can last from 5 to 15 minutes as the person transitions into the REM phase of sleeping. In a full nights sleep (8 hours) this cycle is repeated approximately 3-4 times.

Night Terror Facts

  • 3% - 6% of children will experience a night terror
  • Average age of night terror onset is 3.5 years old
  • Night terrors occur mainly in children between the ages of 4 - 12 years of age
  • Sleep terrors usually occur during the first third of sleep (third transition phase)
  • Sleep disturbances often run in families
  • Night terrors can occur more than once in the same night
  • Night terrors can last from a few minutes to 30 minutes

Night terrors unlike nightmares occur during non-REM sleep and happen typically within 2-3 hours of a child falling asleep.

As the child transitions from non-REM sleep to the first stages of REM sleeping (otherwise "light" REM sleeping) a child may become frightened or stimulated by something.

Whatever startles the child causes an intense fear, agitation, or a combination of the two. Which in turn leads to the child who is transitioning to the next stage of sleep being terrorized yet inconsolable as they are still "sleeping".

Usually the transition from one phase of sleep to the next is smooth, short, and uninterrupted; but in some instances night terrors can occur within the short window transition.

Parental Note

While not to make light of a scary situation for parents it's important to remember that children have vivid imaginations. They could be scared of the boogieman, the monsters under the bed, being forced to eat broccoli, etc.

Nightmares vs. Night Terrors

Nightmares and dreams occur during REM sleep and allow the recall of some (if not all) the details that took place during the episode. Nightmares happen during a period of heavy sleep (REM) where the person experiencing the nightmare is semi-aware of the situation.

During a nightmare your child will be able to be comforted and may wish to share the story with you at some point.

My little "muffin" Megan.
My little "muffin" Megan.

My Experience with Night Terrors

It was about 11 pm. when my youngest daughter Megan (pictured right) woke up in a panic screaming "noooo Mommy, no, no Mommmmmmy".

I remember it vividly, like it happened yesterday, simply because it struck fear in my heart.

I ran into her room and witnessed her thrashing around in her bed still screaming "no, noooo". I hurried over to her and picked her up in my arms whispering in her ear "it's ok Meg, mommy's here, it's ok" over and over again.

I thought she was awake, and that surely I, her mother could soothe her like I had so many other nights. It wasn't until I laid her back down in bed peacefully, and started Googleing the heck out of search terms that I learned that it was a night terror my little girl was experiencing.

Her night terror continued for what seemed like forever. Luckily I had friends over that night who were there to console me after I failed to console my child (which in itself filled me with "mommy guilt").

The whole episode as I now describe it took about 20 minutes from beginning to end. I can hardly believe how real and unsettling it was to me and how peacefully she seemed to fall right back to sleep afterwards.

It happened two more times within that month. But after that first night I was more prepared to handle her night terrors although I was hoping it was a one time occurrence. Regardless of how much I had read, inquired, and searched it still strikes fear in the heart of any parent being awaken by a screaming, disoriented child.

Looking back I attribute it to her being anxious, with an underdeveloped central nervous system, lacking the ability to comprehend the changes occurring in her life, and her being an overly sensitive child. She was a little younger than 2 years old then, now at 4.5 years old she recalls those life changes fondly.

Regardless no mother, father, grandmother, etc. can handle those blood curdling screams from their loved one(s) while feeling completely helpless. Her night terrors terrorized me for a month even with an adult rationale of what was happening, once they stopped I still was on guard for a few months there after. I'm glad to say night terrors were short lived in our house.

That about sums it up. 'This too shall pass....
That about sums it up. 'This too shall pass.... | Source

After a Night Terror

Since Megan was in a deep sleep I find peace in realizing she will not remember the traumatic night terrors she experienced. Nor will she have any mental images to rethink about or to scare her further.

Night Terrors really are way more traumatizing for the caregiver rather than child (remember I speak from experience). It's safe to say that night terrors are semi-normal in otherwise healthy children when they are the only “abnormal” issue presenting. It’s also safe to assume that your phase of sleep disturbances in this case night terrors will come and go as easily (or as uneasily) as ours did.

Parental Note

Of course it goes without saying if your child is suffering night after night with night terrors be sure to consult your pediatrician.

Do Night Terrors Reoccur?

Night terrors can be hereditary sleep disturbances. So if a family member has ever suffered from night terrors, sleepwalking, or other sleep disorders the chance your child will is about 80% higher than that of a child who is not genetically predisposed to sleep issues.

As I mentioned above Megan had 2 more night terrors and we haven't had any since. Fingers crossed we don't have any more; however the likelihood that she will have another episode is higher than if she had never experienced one in the first place.

I did in the meantime recall her father mentioning he was a sleepwalker as a child, which only further supports the hereditary aspect of night terrors.

Your child may have a single night terror or several before they cease altogether. Only time will tell but I do think it’s safe to surmise that the night terrors simply disappear as the nervous system matures.

Is There Treatment for Night Terrors?

There's no treatment for night terrors to date, but you can help prevent them.

Things to try if your child is suffering from night terrors:

  • reduce your child's stress
  • establish and stick to a bedtime routine that's relaxing
  • make sure your child gets enough rest to prevent becoming overtired

Talking with your child about their night terrors will cause confusion. Remember that this is not a bad dream about monsters where you reassure them monsters are not real.

Talking with your child about something that seems scary but they have no recollection of could cause greater anxiety; which in turn could lead to more night terrors.

Only approach the subject of night terrors if your child asks; thus ensuring it was a nightmare and not a night terror.

Poll

Has Your Child Suffered With Night Terror(s)?

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How to Cope with Night Terrors

Night terrors are often very upsetting for parents who have never dealt with them before.

The best way to handle a night terror is to wait it out patiently and make sure the child doesn't get hurt by thrashing, wiggling, or walking around.

This can be done by cuddling your child or ensuring he or she is "safe" from harm in their bed.

Use pillows, blankets, stuffed animals etc. to cushion any possible fall or bruises that could happen. Within a few minutes or so if left undisturbed your child will simply fall back to sleep as if nothing happened.

Good luck trying to fall back to sleep yourself after a night terror by your little one.

Keep in mind that while your child surely seems awake they are not. It is always best not to try to wake kids during a night terror. Attempts usually don't work; kids who are awoken during a night terror are likely to be disoriented and confused, and often take longer to settle down then allowing the night terror to run it's course. As hard as it may be to let your little one scream and cry it is much easier on them to let the night terror run it's course. Thus allowing the transitioning from NREM sleep to happen "naturally".

Understanding night terrors can reduce 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.

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    • Rfordin profile imageAUTHOR

      Rfordin 

      4 years ago from Florida

      That's very interesting Abbi. We no longer suffer from them as they seem to be related to the toddler years around this place......I'm glad you found a way to help your little boy. :)

    • profile image

      Abbi 

      4 years ago

      I'd read that night terrors are caused by over heating. My eldest son had loads of them as a toddler but once I'd read about heat I knew to put him in lighter bedclothes and they stopped. He still gets a form of night terror (aged 11) where he sleep walks and is semi-awake but again it always happens if he has done something like go to bed in a sleeping bag.

    • Rfordin profile imageAUTHOR

      Rfordin 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Hi teachers12345,

      They were quite terrifying back then but my daughter seems to have outgrown them (although my older daughter does sleepwalk). Thanks for stopping by to see me....

      ~Becky

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      5 years ago

      Thisia great post on educating parents on night terrors. I have not had to experience this, but understand how children could have this fear. Quite interesting and very useful, voted as such.

    • Rfordin profile imageAUTHOR

      Rfordin 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Hi curiousworld,

      WOW your whole life huh? I'm so glad you found it then. Thanks for stopping by to see me and commenting.

      ~Becky

    • curiousworld profile image

      Ashley 

      5 years ago from Colorado

      This is the article I have been looking for all my life. What a cool one. I remember night terrors, what annoying pesky little things they were.

      Awesome Article!

    • Rfordin profile imageAUTHOR

      Rfordin 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Hi always exploring,

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      ~Becky

    • Rfordin profile imageAUTHOR

      Rfordin 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Hi AudreyHowitt,

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      ~Becky

    • Rfordin profile imageAUTHOR

      Rfordin 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Hey Nell Rose,

      Nightmares are very scary and real for young, vivid imaginations. I remember having nightmares of monsters and stuff but never like you mentioned. Faces floating around your bed? YIKES!

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting.

      ~Becky

    • peachpurple profile image

      peachy 

      5 years ago from Home Sweet Home

      when i was young, i had night terrors after watching JAWS and JURASSIC PARK !!! Since then, i never watch horror movies even though others might not think likewise. I am a scady cat!

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Richert 

      5 years ago from Southern Illinois

      A great hub with useful info. Your daughter is adorable..Thank you for sharing..

    • Rfordin profile imageAUTHOR

      Rfordin 

      5 years ago from Florida

      Hi billybuc,

      Thank you for complementing my baby she definitely takes after her mama ;). I recall it now as just a 'blip in the road but back then I was one worried mama. Thanks for coming to see me.

      ~Becky

    • daskittlez69 profile image

      daskittlez69 

      5 years ago from midwest

      My son had night terrors a few years ago. It used to scare the hell out of my wife and myself. He seems to have outgrown them though. Thanks for the great Hub!

    • AudreyHowitt profile image

      Audrey Howitt 

      5 years ago from California

      Such a great and informative hub!

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      5 years ago from England

      Hi, I remember I used to have night terrors, in fact mine consisted of seeing faces floating around my bed as I woke up, obviously it was a nightmare but I still remember them today, great hub and very useful info, nell

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      5 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Well, first of all, Megan is a doll! :)

      I never had night terrors as a kid, and I don't remember my son having them either. However, I know others who have and they are very real and very upsetting. Great information here, Beckie!

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