Resource Center Guest Expert: How to Prevent Night Terrors

Lully invites Teresa Stewart, MS, MPH a professional Infant-Child Sleep Consultant, to discuss the common belief parents have about night terrors: “There is nothing we can do, except wait this out”.

Written by: Teresa Stewart, MS, MPH

1.5 million children each year in the US develop night terrors (also known as sleep terrors). They are dramatic events during sleep where children suddenly act extremely scared and frightened.  They last from a few minutes up to 30 minutes and can occur nightly.  They are unique from nightmares. Night terrors usually occur in the first 2-3 hours after a child initially falls asleep, whereas nightmares tend to happen closer to the morning. Other characteristics that distinguish night terrors is that the child is not dreaming, cannot be consoled, and does not remember the incident in the morning.

When parents first experience their child having night terrors, they may be told “these are no big deal, just wait for them to go away on their own”. While it is true that night terrors will eventually go away on their own, anyone who has a child suffering from night terrors can attest that these are a HUGE deal! They impact the entire family’s quality of sleep; and as any parent knows, the quality of sleep impacts all other aspects of the family’s physical, mental, and emotional wellness. To just wait it out can be overwhelming. Furthermore, there are several options that can help to improve the night terrors.

If your child starts to experience a pattern of night terrors, please consult with your child’s healthcare provider. Sometimes night terrors may be correlated to a health condition or certain medications your child is on. It’s always important to rule out any underlying medical factors. It’s also important to make sure that you implement any necessary safety measures to help keep your child from being hurt during the night terror (examples: for a young toddler, a railing on the bed so they can’t fall out; or for a child who may be sleep walking while they are having the night terrors, a gate at the bedroom door or at the top of the stairs so they can’t fall.) Some families also find it helpful to have a bell or an alarm system attached to the bedroom door, so they know if the child is sleep walking and can respond to make sure they are safe.

Sleep hygiene will play a critical role in helping to eliminate the night terrors. Night terrors are often exacerbated when a child is overtired. Sleep hygiene includes making sure your child is getting enough sleep on a regular basis, as recommended by The National Sleep Foundation. It also entails maintaining a consistent morning wake time and consistent bedtime. The Circadian Rhythm does best if kept regular, so keeping wake and bedtimes within 30-minute windows is helpful (example, if you want your child awake at 7am, you’d want to keep the waketime between 6:45-7:15am on a daily basis). The environment can play a role in protecting sleep and helping a child get the sleep they need. It’s important to make sure the room stays cool, dark, and quiet (although white noise that is constant and consistent can help children who are early risers, sleep longer.) If your child is a toddler or preschooler and still taking naps, the timing of naps can be a role in the child’s ability to achieve optimal sleep at night. Depending on the timing of naps, moving bedtime slightly earlier or slightly later may be helpful. (Note this is dependent on many factors- child’s age and stage of development; the timing of naps; and his unique sleep needs. Reviewing your child’s schedule with a sleep consultant can help you identify if timing changes would be helpful.)

This is part 1 of a 2 part series. In part 2 Teresa will discuss triggers that can cause night terrors, and 2 non-medication methods that can help improve night terrors.

Reference: A Clinical Guide to Pediatric Sleep: Diagnosis and Management of Sleep Problems by Jodi A. Mindell and Judith A. Owens. (2003).

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