Waking up in the middle of the night to hear your child intensely crying or screaming can be alarming. If your child appears extremely frightened or panicked, and is even kicking, talking or sleepwalking, he or she might be experiencing a night terror, also referred to as a sleep terror.
Night terrors are different than nightmares. Though children may have their eyes open and appear to be awake during a night terror, they are actually in a deep sleep and will not respond to you as they normally do, nor will they have any recollection of the episode. Children typically go back to sleep more easily after a night terror than after a nightmare.
While unnerving to parents, night terrors are not dangerous. It is estimated that between one and six percent of children experience night terrors. They begin at age 3 on average, but can occur before or after that age too. Most children will outgrow them by age 12, many even sooner.
How parents can help prevent night terrors
Michelle Caraballo, M.D., a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep medicine physician at Children’s Health℠, says doctors don’t know why night terrors occur, though researchers believe there may be a genetic component and a potential link between sleep deprivation and night terrors.
While there’s no definitive way to prevent night terrors, you can take steps to help your child develop healthy sleep habits. Most importantly, ensure your child has a regular, relaxing bedtime routine that allows for enough sleep. The amount of sleep your child needs varies by age: Toddlers (ages 1-2) need 11-14 hours of sleep per day, including naps, while preschool-aged kids (ages 3-5) need 10-13 hours. Variations in sleep schedule, changes to the sleep environment, or sleeping in a noisy environment, could trigger a night terror in children who are prone to them.
“When a child is overly tired, they are likely to get more of the deepest stage of sleep, called delta sleep, since their body is trying to catch up,” explains Dr. Caraballo. “Since this is the stage of sleep when night terrors occur, they are more likely to have a night terror when sleep deprived.”
Most children experience night terrors 1-3 hours after they fall asleep. If your child typically has night terrors at the same time every night, you may be able to help prevent a night terror from starting by gently waking them up 15 minutes before the episode occurs.
How to care for your child during a night terror
Remember, night terrors are not nightmares. Your child is not dreaming or awake during these events. You should also understand that night terrors are not a sign of psychological problems and do not cause any psychological harm to your child.
Your first priority during a night terror is to remain calm and keep your child safe, especially if they sleepwalk.
“Most children with night terrors do not get out of bed, but some children may sleepwalk and can injure themselves,” says Dr. Caraballo. “All outside doors and windows should be secure, and the floor should be clear of things that the child may step on or trip over.” If they sleepwalk, Dr. Caraballo also recommends putting locks high up on the doors and placing bells or alarms on the outside doors so you will be alerted if they try to leave the house.
Because it can be difficult to watch your child experience a night terror, you may feel like you need to comfort or wake your child up. However, you should let your child sleep through the episode. Trying to wake your child or interrupting the night terror may cause more distress to your child and may cause the night terror to last longer.
Instead, gently guide your child back to bed. If you sense resistance, don’t worry; just keep an eye on the situation. Once things settle down, your child can be helped back to bed.
The next day, don’t discuss the night terrors with your child unless they bring it up. It’s likely they won’t remember. Making a big deal about night terrors can embarrass your child and cause undue stress and anxiety. If they ask, let your child know that night terrors are normal and not their fault. Reassure your child that when night terrors occur, you will be there to protect them and in time, they will grow out of night terrors.
In most cases, Dr. Caraballo says, night terrors don’t require any specific treatment. However, if the night terrors cause injury or severe disruption to the family, or if your child has signs of other sleep disorders like sleep apnea, you should speak to your child’s pediatrician.
Learn how the pediatric sleep medicine experts at Children’s Health can help your child experience a great night’s rest.