What are night terrors?
Night terrors are different from nightmares and temper tantrums.
Still, parents sometimes confuse them. With nightmares, parents can comfort their children by talking to them, hugging them, or turning on a light. On the other hand, with night terrors, parents can't wake children from the episode or console them. Children may look around or move, but they don't recognize people or react as they normally would. Children usually don't remember night terrors the next morning, unlike nightmares.
When night terrors happen, most of the brain is "asleep," but the small part that controls a child's movement, voice, and expression actually remains awake. Even though children who are having night terrors may yell, cry, or move around, they're actually fast asleep and don't realize what they're doing.
You did nothing to cause night terrors—and they are more upsetting for you than your child.
Night terrors can be scary for parents, but don't worry: they're considered "benign" conditions, meaning they have no harmful impact on the child experiencing them. Night terrors aren't signals of a psychological problem or a traumatic past experience, and—importantly—parents did not cause them. Sleep challenges, such as sleepwalking and night terrors, are common and affect 20%-30% of young children.
Night terrors usually happen within the first few hours after bedtime.
Children having a night terror may:
- yell or scream
- bolt upright in bed
- move around in bed, often uncontrollably or violently
- get out of bed completely as if sleepwalking
- appear agitated, with a rapid pulse
- be difficult to wake up
- be impossible to comfort
- be confused if awoken
Compared to a run-of-the-mill nightmare, night terrors cause more stress and sleep deprivation for parents. If you're looking to confirm that your child is having night terrors, how you're feeling may be its own sign.
As with sleepwalking, no one knows the exact cause of night terrors.
Night terrors tend to run in families, so genetics play a role. Some factors do increase the likelihood that a child prone to night terrors will experience one, including:
- sleep deprivation
- a full bladder
- noise or light
- some medicine
Seeing a doctor usually isn't necessary.
A night terror can be such scary, dramatic event that you may feel a doctor needs to officially test or witness it—but those steps are not often needed.
In rare cases, doctors recommend an overnight sleep study
What can I do during and after a night terror?
Don't try to wake up or calm your child.
We know it’s hard to not interfere in the middle of a night terror, but doing so may make the terror stronger and longer-lasting. Instead of hugging or trying to wake your child, simply make sure your child isn’t in physical danger. Clear heavy objects from nightstands, pick up toys on the floor that could trip the child, and make sure the child is away from stairs. Then, stay calm and wait for the storm to pass.
Keep notes, and don't mention the night terror to your child the next day.
Keep track of how long the night terror lasts and whether anything was different about that night compared to others—these details may come in handy if your doctor asks for more information.
Children usually don’t remember night terrors the next morning, so try to not make a big deal about what happened. If you ask them a lot of questions, act anxious, or describe the night terror, your child may become afraid to go to sleep—which is never good for future bedtimes.
Doctors rarely prescribe medication.
Because night terrors usually do not harm the children experiencing them, doctors will only prescribe medication in extreme cases when the night terrors happen frequently or endanger the child (for example, if children walk around and risk hurting themselves).
Medication is a last resort because sedatives and antidepressants will “zonk kids out,” causing them to sink into such a deep sleep that they skip the night terrors altogether. Often, doctors decide that the daytime side effects of sedatives and antidepressants aren’t worth stopping the night terrors.
"Waiting for kids to outgrow night terrors" is an option, but parents can accelerate it.
In the past, some doctors have recommended “waiting it out” because most children eventually outgrow the night terrors; this approach can be frustrating and exhausting for parents.
If you want to help your child sooner without using medication, consider the Sleep Guardian 2, a non-prescription option based on the proven approach of “scheduled awakenings.”
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