Nothing scares a parent more than hearing your sleeping child let out a scream in the dead of night. However, the chances are that it is just a bad dream, and you should be able to comfort them and get them back to sleep in no time.
Nevertheless, in some cases, you may be in for something even more disturbing. What happens when you walk in on your child in an animated scene that looks straight out of The Exorcist, fighting imaginary enemies, and letting outcries for help?
The chances are that you are watching your child undergoing a night terror episode.
What are Night Terrors?
If you are unfamiliar with the concept, think of a night terror episode as a nightmare on steroids. However, for those in the know, there is no mistaking this sleeping disturbance.
Night terrors, known clinically as confusional arousals, are bouts of partial arousals from sleep during which the sleeper stays engrossed in a frightening dream sequence, shows symptoms of extreme panic, yet often remains entirely unconscious.
Furthermore, these episodes often include continuous or intermittent spells of moaning, screaming or shouting, and extensive amounts of movement, with the sleeper thrashing around, sitting up in bed, or even sleepwalking.
Plus, since the child typically remains unconscious for the entire incident, they are often unaware of the presence of parents or any other person in the room. However, while remaining absorbed in an intense fantasy, the kid can act out the scary plotline, and in rare cases, even become violent.
Nevertheless, while night terror episodes can be quite perplexing and confusing for unacquainted parents, they are rarely ever a cause for concern as they do not harm the dreamer.
Night terror episodes can last anywhere from a few seconds to up to 30 minutes, and most complete the entire incident without waking up, and consequently, resume sleeping afterward. Plus, with night terrors, the child often does not remember anything about the episode come morning.
What Causes Night Terrors?
Night terrors can occur when the central nervous system reaches an abnormally high level of arousal during sleep. These arousals can often trigger body movement and speech while the sleeper remains unconscious. Add horrifying nightmare footage to the mix, and you have the recipe for a night terror episode.
However, since night terrors occur during non-REM sleep (most dreams occur in the later, REM stages of sleep), the sleeper typically remains entirely unconscious of the entire incident.
Hence, most people who experience night terrors are likely to wake up with no memory of the accompanying dream, or only a vague image.
In kids, their developing central nervous system significantly increases their chances of experiencing night terrors and nightmares. Plus, some experts believe that children may inherit a predisposition for night terror occurrences from their family tree.
Several research studies also point to the conclusion that several other conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, stress and anxiety, medical side effects, and some sleep disorders may contribute to increasing the frequency of night terror episodes.
Who Do Night Terrors Affect?
While there is no accurate statistic on the total amount of people that get night terrors, one thing all inquiries into the topic agree on is the fact that children are significantly more likely to experience episodes.
One report in the journal, SLEEP, concludes that children between the ages of 4 and 12 are the group most vulnerable to experiencing night terror episodes, with these occurrences reaching a feverish pitch between 5-7.
On the other hand, another article in PubMed Central estimates that up to 40% of children will report at least an episode during their growing years, compared with only 2% for people during adulthood.
Hence, for most kids, night terrors are just a part of growing up and shouldn’t be a cause for concern. However, when these episodes occur at a high rate of frequency, especially in adults, the chances are that they may stem from underlying conditions like sleep disorders or anxiety and stress.
Furthermore, genetics may also be a significant factor.
Night Terror Symptoms
One of the most telling signs that your child is experiencing a night terror episode is the fact that when they wake, they can barely remember any details from the dream, despite being visibly shaken and in a heightened state of panic.
However, in most cases, the sleep terrors don’t wake the sleeper up immediately, and they continue sleeping afterward. Hence, you may have to wait till morning to verify.
Nevertheless, you can figure out if the kid has a night terror episode from several other signs like:
- The episode starts with a scream, shout, or some moaning.
- The sleeper exhibit intense fear
- The child sits up or even leave the bed while remaining unconscious
- Profuse sweating, heavy breathing, and a racing pulse
- Though they are unconscious of their environment, the kid stares wide-eyed and has dilated pupils.
- Kicking, thrashing around, and sleepwalking
- The child is unresponsive to any attempts at comforting them during the episode. Even after they wake from a night terror episode, many children will remain inconsolable for a while.
- Trying to escape or becoming aggressive when touched, restrained, or blocked.
- The episode occurs only a few hours after going to bed.
While night terrors are unlikely to cause any harm to your kid, in severe cases, they can cause serious sleep disruption. Like with other forms of sleep disorder, a high frequency of night terror episodes can damage their sleep schedule, result in inadequate sleep, and cause further complications such as:
- Intemperate daytime sleepiness and low energy levels which can negatively affect performance at school, work, or other everyday tasks
- Reduced cognition during the day which can further impair performance or even lead to bodily injuries
- Harm to self or others during night terror episodes
- Embarrassment about night terror episodes and possible relationship issues
With extreme night terror cases where you have to visit the pediatrician, the doctor can often draw up potential causes based on their medical history or and a general physical exam.
However, if everything checks out, and the health practitioner suspects any other underlying conditions, they may recommend a sleep study to fish out any concealed sleep disorders, or an EEG to check brain function and any potential seizure disorders.
Solutions to Night Terrors
With night terrors, often, the best thing you can do is nothing at all. Most night terror episodes will resolve themselves in a few minutes, and the child will usually get back to sleeping immediately.
However, you can help prevent night terror episodes using methods that promote a healthier sleep routine like setting a fixed sleep schedule, tackling stress, depression, and anxiety, and cutting out stimulants like caffeine and mood-altering medication.
Also, some medication and therapy may help reduce the chances of new episodes occurring, and remedies like CBD can sometimes provide some respite.
How to Handle Children During Night Terrors
As a parent, your primary goal during night terror episodes should be keeping them safe. To achieve this aim, you must rid the room any potentially harmful object to eliminate the risk of any bodily harm.
Furthermore, you should ensure that the doors and windows are locked, and any stairs are gated to help restrict their movement to a small, secure area.
However, you must avoid attempting to wake or touching the child during the episode, as this can often add to their fright. Instead, wait it out to see if they go back to sleep themselves, and if they wake, then comfort and reassure them.
Adult Night Terrors
There is a significantly less chance of adults experiencing night terrors. However, when they do, like with children, the episodes often don’t cause any harm and go away themselves.
Nevertheless, with adults, there is a more considerable chance that the sleep disturbance stems from an underlying condition like psychological issues, or other sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea.
Hence, here, once episodes become more frequent than the occasional pre-big-day disturbed sleep, you should consider seeing a doctor just to be sure.
Are Night Terrors and Nightmares the Same Thing?
While night terrors do have a nightmare component, both sleep disturbances are markedly different in the impact they have on the child.
While both conditions can leave kids in comparable states of panic, with night terrors, one defining factor is that the kid rarely remembers the dream or even that they were dreaming. Plus, on average, a kid will wake from a night terror significantly more shaken than they would from a regular nightmare.
Furthermore, another telling difference is that night terrors and dreams tend to occur at different parts of the night.
Since night terrors often occur in non-REM sleep, these episodes typically happen before midnight and only a few hours after bed. On the other hand, nightmares tend to occur in the deeper REM stages of sleep that we often reach closer to dawn.