Resource Center Causes of Night Terrors

Causes of Night Terrors

For parents of children with night terrors, it’s quite common (and understandable) to want to get to the root of the problem so a fix can be found. However, night terrors are a bit more complex than a simple cause-and-effect explanation. Though there is no single established cause for night terrors, we can help you understand common triggers—and clear up a few misconceptions, too. Here’s what you need to know:

How the Brain is Involved

Think of night terrors as a slight glitch in the way the brain is supposed to act during sleep. Normal sleep means that all regions of the brain are “asleep.” Sleep disturbed by night terrors means that there is irregular brain activity going on—most of the brain is “asleep,” but the small part that controls movement, voice, and expression actually remains awake. This is why children experiencing night terrors yell, cry, and move around, yet remain fast asleep and are nearly impossible to wake up. This irregular brain activity is what provokes a night terror, though it’s unknown why, exactly, it happens.

Consider Triggers Rather Than Causes

Since there is no single cause of night terrors, many parents find it helpful to adjust their thinking to consider triggers rather than causes. Triggers can make your child more susceptible to night terrors and affect the frequency of episodes, too. Known triggers include:

  • sleep deprivation
  • an overfull bladder
  • fever
  • emotional stress
  • medications that affect the central nervous system
  • noise or light

These things don’t automatically lead to a night terror, but addressing them can help increase the chances of your child having a peaceful night’s sleep.  

Night Terrors Don’t Signal a Parenting Problem

We hear from a lot of parents who worry that they are responsible for or contributing to their child’s night terrors. They see night terrors as some kind of parenting failure—a feeling that worsens as they continue to deal with their child’s night terrors night after night. This fear not only places a lot of stress on the parent, it can also make them hesitant to talk about their child’s night terrors with friends or doctors.

We think that if more parents knew how common night terrors are then they wouldn’t be so quick to blame themselves for their child’s condition. Sleep disorders like night terrors affect 20-30% of children, which means there are plenty of families going through the same thing. Rest assured that night terrors are not a sign of poor parenting. You didn’t cause your child’s night terrors, though you can do things to help the situation, like managing your child’s bedtime and sleep.

Other Contributing Factors

Sometimes there are other sneaky contributing factors to night terrors. Night terrors tend to run in families; if your child isn’t the only one in your family to experience night terrors, then genetics may play a role. And in some rare cases, conditions like sleep apnea and enlarged tonsils can be accompanied by night terrors—so treating the related condition may help treat night terrors.

While we can’t point you to a guaranteed cause of your child’s night terrors, learning more about common triggers can be useful as you face the nights ahead. If you’re looking for other ways to help your child, check out our tips for improving sleep and our guide to night terror treatments.


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