Most parents have comforted their child after the occasional nightmare. But if your child has ever experienced what’s known as a night terror (or sleep terror), his or her fear was likely inconsolable, no matter what you tried.
Unlike nightmares, which a child can usually remember, night terrors are not memorable and the child will not recall experiencing that horror the night before. Night terrors occur when a child is in a deep sleep and there are no mental images to remember.
A night terror is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare, but with a far more dramatic presentation. 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. The sleep disorder of night terrors typically occurs in children aged three to twelve years, with a peak onset in children aged three and a half years.
Night terrors usually occur about two or three hours after a child falls asleep, when sleep transitions from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep, a stage where dreams occur. During a night terror, a child might suddenly sit upright in bed and shout out or scream in distress. The child’s breathing and heartbeat might be faster, he or she might sweat, thrash around, and act upset and scared. After a few minutes, or sometimes longer, a child simply calms down and returns to sleep.
Night terrors can be caused by fever, lack of sleep, stressful or traumatic life events or some medications that control the central nervous system. Parents may take some precautions at home to try and prevent night terrors:
- Eliminate all sources of sleep disturbance like loud noises or excessive light in your child’s room.
- Maintain a consistent bedtime routine and wake-up time.
- Observe how many minutes the night terror occurs from your child’s bedtime.
- Awaken your child 15 minutes before the expected night terror, and keep them awake and out of bed for five minutes.
- You may want to take your child to the bathroom to see if they will urinate.
Continue this routine for a week. Also, make the child’s room safe to try to prevent the any injuries during an episode.
Unfortunately, no adequate treatment exists for night terrors. Management primarily consists of educating family members about the disorder and reassuring them that the episodes are not harmful. Night terror episodes are short-lived and usually occur over several weeks. Nearly all children outgrow night terrors by adolescence.
If the night terrors continue and appear to get worse consult your pediatrician immediately. The Sleep Center at Jamaica Hospital is open from 7:00pm to 7:00 am and available to diagnose and monitor sleeping patterns. For additional information or to schedule an appointment, please call 718-206-5916.
All content of this newsletter is intended for general information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult a medical professional before adopting any of the suggestions on this page. You must never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment based upon any content of this newsletter. PROMPTLY CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN OR CALL 911 IF YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY.