Night terrors in children are no joke — and if you’ve ever experienced them yourself, you know there’s a huge difference between a terror and your average nightmare. As a parent, it has to be one of the worst things to watch your child go through, especially since terrors can be so unpredictable and scary.
It’s easier to keep your cool when your kid is having a night terror, however, if you know what to look for and how to react when they wake, inconsolable, in the middle of the night.
Bradi Nathan, a New Jersey mom and co-founder of MyWorkButterfly.com, says her son’s night terrors began a few years back and now appear at the onset of an illness. Nathan admits there have been many nights that she felt utterly helpless as her son grasped onto her for dear life yelling, “Save me.”
“The first terror arrived late at night as my husband and I were in deep REM mode,” says Nathan. “It was if Jack was screaming to be saved by a burglar… like a scene out of a sci-fi movie.”
“His screams intensified, eyes rolled back, he was thrusting his tongue, yet he was sleeping the whole time,” she continues. “We immediately called the pediatrician who told us not to wake him, not to touch him, and to repeatedly say, it’s okay, you are safe, mommy is here. The notion is that if a child is woken out of a night terror then they will be afraid to fall back to sleep and often slip right back into in.”
Night terrors or nightmares?
According to Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist specializing in child development and parenting at AhaParenting.com, nightmares are upsetting dreams that happen during REM (dream) sleep. Night terrors occur during Stage 4 Deep Sleep, or during the transition from Stage 4 to REM Sleep. In other words, during a night terror, the person is actually asleep — according to his brain waves — even if his eyes are open. In fact, most of the time the person has no recollection of the terrors.
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The cause of night terrors
“Night terrors can occur at any age, but small children seem to suffer from them most frequently. In fact, up to 15 percent of kids reportedly experience at least one night terror,” says Dr. Markham. “Scientists think night terrors may be caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system, which regulates brain activity. Most children outgrow them, probably as their brains mature, although some adults do report having night terrors when under stress. This suggests that stress could also trigger night terrors in little ones.”
Dr. Markham notes that Stanford researchers have hypothesized that there is a link between childhood sleep apnea and night terrors, so it’s always a good idea to have your pediatrician check your child for sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can make it difficult for children to get enough rest, and there are indications that over-tiredness as well as stress can trigger night terrors in people who are prone to them.
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Originally published January 2010. Updated May 2017.
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