Night Terrors in Children: What to Know

Waking up to death shrieks from your toddler is something no parent wants to experience. If you have a young child, chances are that you may have been rudely awakened by them screaming and thrashing in the night, seemingly unable to be awakened or comforted. In the morning, they don't even remember the episode or you even being there trying to settle them.

These episodes of screaming and thrashing are known as night terrors; a common sleep disorder commonly seen in children (mostly male). While night terrors can be unsettling for parents, they are surprisingly quite common, and there are some steps you can take to minimize their occurrence and address any underlying issues. 

What are Night Terrors?

Night terrors are a type of parasomnia characterized by sudden episodes of waking up in the middle of the night screaming, crying, or thrashing around. These episodes are often accompanied by intense fear and confusion and can be very distressing for both the child experiencing them and their parents. 

Night terrors differ from nightmares because they occur during deep sleep, while nightmares tend to occur during REM sleep. It can be challenging to wake a child experiencing a night terror, as opposed to a nightmare where the individual can usually remember what is happening. While night terrors typically resolve on their own as the child ages, there are some things you can do.

What is the Difference Between Night Terrors and Nightmares?

Night terrors are episodes of extreme fear and panic that typically occur during the first few hours of sleep, while nightmares usually happen later in the night. Night terrors can be pretty frightening to watch, as your child may scream, thrash around, or appear to be having a seizure. 

However, no physical harm typically results from these episodes, and they often resolve on their own within a few minutes. In contrast, nightmares are much more easily triggered by things that have happened during the day or other external stimuli. Nightmares tend to cause feelings of anxiety and distress that persist after waking up, while night terrors do not typically lead to long-term psychological effects.

What Causes Night Terrors in Children?

The underlying cause of night terrors in children is not fully understood, but it is thought to be related to disturbances in the sleep cycle that occur during non-REM sleep. 

Night terrors can also be caused by sleep deprivation or stress and are more common in younger children who have not yet developed a stable sleep schedule. Some other possible risk factors for night terrors include family history, certain health conditions, and environmental factors such as smoking or exposure to loud noises.

If your child is experiencing frequent night terrors, it is crucial to seek medical attention in order to rule out any underlying causes or health conditions. There are some strategies you can try at home to help reduce the frequency and severity of these episodes

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What Can You do to Help Your Child

Some strategies include establishing a consistent sleep schedule, avoiding activities that can cause stress or arousal prior to bedtime, using white noise machines or humidifiers in the bedroom, and practicing relaxation techniques before bed. 

Additionally, you may want to speak to your child's doctor about medications or other treatment options that may be effective for reducing the frequency and severity of night terrors. 

By working closely with your child's doctor and implementing healthy sleep habits at home, you can help reduce the impact that night terrors have on both you and your child.


Sleeping Child in Bed


Keep the bedroom safe.

Children who experience night terrors can thrash around in an uncontrollable manner. Because of the sudden and abrupt movement caused by the terror, you need to keep hard, sharp, or ridged objects away from the bedroom (for at least bedtime). This includes but is not limited to wooden/hard toys, books, and too many covers and pillows.

Keeping a regular sleep schedule 

Some strategies that may help reduce the frequency and severity of night terrors include establishing regular sleep habits; This can be crucial for helping to reduce night terrors. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time each day, including on the weekends. This includes making sure that your child gets enough to sleep every night. Ensuring that they get between 9 and 11 hours of restful sleep every night will help support their mental and physical health, which can also help minimize night terrors. 

Some other methods of helping with night terrors are reducing stress levels in your child's life and regularly engaging in calming activities such as reading or yoga before bedtime.

Overall, it is important to remain calm and reassuring during these episodes so that your child does not become overly frightened or develop negative associations with sleep. 

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Triggers of Night Terrors 

Triggers can vary from child to child. However, some common triggers include sleep deprivation, stress or anxiety, and the use of some children's medications. Children with a family history of night terrors may be at greater risk for developing this condition as well.

When you witness your child experiencing night terrors, it is important to remain calm and avoid trying to wake them up during the episode. Instead, focus on comforting and reassuring your child once they have woken up on their own. They might not remember what happened, but this is normal. 


Mother and Daughter Reading a Bedtime Book


Final Thoughts

Night terrors can be a scary experience for both children and parents, but the good news is that there are steps you can take to minimize their frequency and severity. 

By establishing regular sleep habits, reducing stress in your child's life, and engaging in calming activities before bedtime, you can help reduce the likelihood of your child experiencing night terrors. Additionally, Keeping the bedroom safe for your child is essential. 

If your child's episodes become particularly severe or frequent, it is essential to consult with a healthcare professional for further guidance.

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