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Night Terrors: Advice for parents

Frequent upsetting and severe nightmares or ‘Night Terrors’ in children can be a common occurrence in some childhoods but that doesn't make them any less frightening for your child and extremely upsetting for parents. Here is our advice on understanding and treating your child who is suffering from this sleep disorder:

Nightmare versus Night terror

The difference between a normal nightmare and a night terror is clear: according to sleep analysts and child psychologists, a night terror differs from a normal nightmare because dreams and nightmares occur in REM sleep. Whereby night terrors occur in deep sleep (non REM). Because of this, the person or child is in deep sleep and therefore unconscious, and although they may appear awake during an episode ( eyes open, moving) they are completely asleep, and once awake will have no recollection of their night terror.

Causes of Night Terrors

Night terrors happen between the ages of 3 and 12 years old but smaller children may suffer them more frequently. Boys and girls can get them equally and they usually disappear by adolescence. The causes of night terrors are relatively unknown but researchers have attributed a number of factors that may cause them. The major issue, doctors believe, is related to the child’s growing central nervous system. They believe that the child’s brain is being ‘over-aroused’ during sleep causing extra brain activity. Because children’s brains mature as they get older the night terrors naturally decrease. Other factors that may cause them are stress, medications, fever and sleep deprivation.

Symptoms of Night Terrors

Symptoms of night terrors can include intense crying and fear during sleep, usually around 90 minutes after a child has gone to bed. The child will be difficult to wake and may or may not have an increased heart and breathing rate and he/she may be sweating. Because the child is in a deep sleep during these episodes they may sit up, move about and be disorientated and confused, appearing awake to their parents. Most episodes last 1 or 2 minutes but some can last longer. The child will most likely not recall the incident in the morning.

Tips for Parents

Night terrors can be very upsetting for parents who may feel they cannot comfort their child during these episodes, but it is important to remember that according to research, your child will not remember these episodes and is most likely not traumatised by them. So try to stay calm during an episode.

Reduce Stress: if a child is going through potty-training, moving home or starting school, try and minimise the stress caused by such events. Keep him/her away from loud noises, arguments, stressful situations and reduce stressful discipline. Try keep bed time changes like sleep-overs or trips to minimum until it has passed.

Regular bed time: Over tired children are more susceptible to night terrors so keep a regular bedtime schedule. Getting them to bed a little earlier (7pm) will lessen the possibility of over arousal of brain activity. Adopt a comfortable bedtime ritual that avoids TV, Ipads, food or any other stimuli. Cosy cuddles with calming bedtime story every night will help soothe them, creating better sleep.

Don’t wake them: Don’t try and wake your child during one of these episodes it will only prolong the episode and it will leave your child extremely disoriented. Be there and speak gently and soothing to help them get back to sleep.

When to seek help

If your child is under 3 years old or suffering from a night terror for more than a week then you should seek help from your GP. The doctor can help diagnose a child’s disorder and rule out any contributing factors such as medications or other illnesses.

Related Parents Resources

For more advice on getting your child to sleep please read our Better Bedtime guide.