Night terrors can be a harrowing experience for both the child and the parents. Often mistaken for nightmares, these episodes of intense fear and panic can leave many parents feeling helpless. Let’s delve deep into understanding night terrors, how they differ from nightmares, their causes, and the steps you can take to comfort your child.
What Are Night Terrors?
Night terrors, scientifically termed ‘parasomnias,’ are episodes where children appear to be awake, exhibiting signs of panic such as screaming, thrashing, or staring blankly. Unlike nightmares, children usually don’t recall the episodes of night terrors. They occur during the deep non-REM sleep, typically within the first few hours of falling asleep.
Night terrors in children occur most commonly between the ages of 4 and 12. A night terror, also sometimes called a sleep terror, is an actual sleep disorder and part of a class of sleep disorders called “parasomnias.” 1,2 It occurs typically during the first few hours of sleep and happens during non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. It can last up to 10 minutes and causes feelings of panic and distress.2
Night Terrors vs. Nightmares
Although they might sound similar to nightmares, night terrors are entirely different. As mentioned, they are a formal sleep disorder and happen during NREM sleep, whereas a nightmare is a dream that brings up big feelings or an emotional response. Nightmares also occur during a different stage of sleep — rapid eye movement (REM) sleep — and tend to happen later in the night.5. It’s essential to distinguish between night terrors and nightmares as their management can differ:
- Recollection: Post a nightmare, children can often recall and narrate the dream. With night terrors, they typically have no memory of the event.
- Timing: Nightmares usually occur during REM sleep, closer to morning. In contrast, night terrors happen during non-REM deep sleep, often within the first few hours after sleeping.
- Response: Children waking up from a nightmare seek comfort and can be consoled. Those experiencing night terrors seem disoriented and might not recognize caregivers, making consolation harder.
What Causes Them?
More often than not, night terrors aren’t something in your control, and there is some evidence that night terrors are genetic (meaning they can be passed down in families).8 Some research says certain health conditions like nocturnal asthma, reflux, or particular medications might have some influence, too.8 Finally, overall health can play a role, with night terrors being more common in those who don’t have a proper diet or good quality sleep.9. The exact cause of night terrors remains somewhat elusive. However, several factors may contribute:
- Genetics: Children with family members who’ve had night terrors or sleepwalking episodes are more likely to experience them.
- Sleep Deprivation: Over-tiredness or irregular sleep routines can trigger episodes.
- Stress: Stressful life events or changes in routine can be catalysts.
- Fever or Illness: Physical factors, like running a fever, might bring about night terror.
- Certain Medications: Some medicines are known to interfere with sleep, resulting in parasomnias.
- Sleep Disruptions: Disturbances during deep non-REM sleep can trigger an episode.
How You Can Comfort Your Child if They Have Night Terrors
It’s important to know that although they look upset or distressed, they aren’t having a nightmare and aren’t responding to things around them (nor will they remember things the next morning), so you can’t comfort them per se. However, there are several things you can do to help your child during a night terror, including. Comforting a child during a night terror can be challenging due to their disoriented state. Here’s a guide:
- Stay Calm: Your calm demeanor can help regulate the situation.
- Ensure Safety: Prevent any potential harm by clearing the surroundings and gently restraining the child if needed.
- Minimal Interaction: While you might feel compelled to wake them up, it’s often better to wait it out unless they’re in danger. Waking can cause further confusion.
- Post-Terror Comfort: Once the episode concludes, offer comfort, a gentle touch, or a soft lullaby to help them transition back to peaceful sleep.
Is There a Treatment?
It’s a waiting game, as most children grow out of night terrors without any intervention or support. It is essential to make sure they are safe during a night terror and ensure you don’t wake them. But the most effective treatment is helping your child improve their sleep. You could look into some potential causes, like health issues, diet, or sleep quality, and see if you can make any adjustments. While night terrors can be distressing, most children outgrow them without any intervention. However, if episodes are frequent or severe:
- Consistent Sleep Schedule: Ensure your child has a consistent bedtime routine and gets adequate sleep.
- Manage Stress: Identify and manage potential stressors in your child’s environment.
- Safe Environment: Ensure their sleeping space is devoid of any objects that might cause injury.
- Consultation: Consider seeking advice from a pediatrician or sleep specialist. They can evaluate any underlying causes and, if necessary, suggest treatments.
Can You Prevent Night Terrors?
We can’t prevent night terrors, especially if they are genetic. However, you can set your child up for restful sleep by ensuring there are no underlying medical concerns and putting strategies in place to improve their quality of sleep.
Remember that night terrors can be a regular part of development, and they do occur in healthy, happy children. Despite this, night terrors and nightmares can be frightening (for our little people and us). While night terrors might not harm our children, it’s essential to address them and explore your child’s experiences with a pediatrician or your family doctor.
Understanding the intricacies of night terrors is the first step toward managing them. With knowledge and patience, parents can ensure that their child’s sleep disturbances are addressed in a comforting and supportive manner, paving the way for many nights of peaceful slumber.