A few hours after your child has gone to sleep for the night, you hear a shrill scream coming from his room, followed by “Mommy, Mommy!” You race to your child's room and notice him sitting up in bed, crying uncontrollably. As you come closer to console him, he pushes you away and continues to call out for his mommy—not recognizing that you are right by his side. This scary synopsis is the result of a night terror.
Megann Sauer, M.D.
Boys Town Pediatrics
Night terrors are a benign sleep disorder in children that can occur usually around the ages of one to age eight. Night terrors are when children will wake up in the middle of the night usually around two hours after falling asleep. They can sometimes be screaming, up wandering around, and the children do not recognize you and although they appear to be awake, they are really not. Children's eyes can be open during night terrors which can at first seem very frightening and confusing but they really will have a hard time recognizing you or following directions.
So we don't truly know what causes night terrors, but we do know that when children are sometimes short on sleep or sleep deprived that that can make it more prevalent.
The best way to treat a night terror is to offer calm reassurance to your child. Don't try to wake your child up. Usually just turn on the light, speak in soft muted tones. Sometimes hold their hand and the goal is to get them to go back to sleep as quickly as possible.
One of the main triggers of night terrors is sleep deprivation so if you can make sure the child is well rested that is the best way to try to prevent them. Night terrors can affect about two percent of the pediatric population. Most children do grow out of night terrors usually once they get into the older school-age groups we tend to see them less frequently.
Recognizing Night Terrors
Children with night terrors scream or cry out and are inconsolable – even though they may be calling out for the very person who is trying to help. This is because, although he may be wide-eyed and possibly out of bed flailing his arms and body, a child experiencing a night terror is still asleep.
Night terrors are most common in children between the ages of 3 and 5 because this is the age when the majority of children make the transition from one nap a day to no naps at all. The terrors are a result of the child not being able to go through the sleep cycle properly. Children who become overly tired will fall into a deep sleep very quickly, and when it's time for the sleep cycle to change, part of the child's brain wants to remain in this deep sleep—forcing a battle in the sleep cycle.
As quickly as the terror begins, in a few minutes it is over and the child goes back to sleep. Unlike a nightmare, the child does not remember the night terror the next morning.
Treating Night Terrors
Make sure the bedroom or area where the child sleeps is safe, just in case he starts sleepwalking. Talk slowly in a soft and comforting voice, play lullaby music or read from a favorite book to help bring your child back to a calm state. Cuddling with your child may actually prolong the terror episode. During a night terror, your child is feeling trapped or chased, and holding him will reinforce these feelings, making the night terror more traumatic.
Because night terrors typically occur at the same time every night, parents can be proactive by waking up their child about 30 minutes before the terror is likely to occur. This will break the sleep cycle. Stay up with your child for about five minutes reading a book, talking or singing a song.
Your child will not remember the night terror the next morning. Do not discuss the terror with your child, and talk to siblings about not bringing up the episode.
Preventing Night Terrors
Prevention involves understanding your child's daily tolerance level and not overloading your child with a busy schedule. If your child has a particularly busy day, you might consider adding a nap during the day or having the child go to bed a little early the night before.
Pay attention to sleep patterns and keep a routine sleep schedule. Try taking your child to the bathroom before bed to relieve any urges in the middle of the night, and create a calming and comforting bedtime routine with music, stuffed animals or a favorite blanket.
If you are concerned that your child may have night terrors or reoccurring nightmares, talk to your child's physician.