Night Terrors in Children
How to help and soothe after nightmares
You’re awakened by the sound of your child screaming. When you rush into her room, she’s sitting up in bed with her eyes open clearly distraught. You move to comfort her and realize that even though she’s shaking and sweating, she’s not awake. This is a night terror. For parents, it can be really unnerving the first time it happens, but your child won’t remember it in the morning.
What are night terrors?
Night terrors can happen as your child transitions from one sleep cycle into the next. Although the exact cause isn’t known, night terrors usually happen in kids ages 3 to 6 and can continue into early adolescence. Common characteristics of night terrors include:
- Open eyes even though your child is still asleep.
- Thrashing, shaking, sweating, or moving around.
- Mumbling or talking.
- Not recognizing that you are there providing comfort.
- It can take 10 -30 minutes for the episode to pass.
- Night terrors usually occur about 2 – 3 hours after falling asleep.
What causes night terrors?
The cause of night terrors hasn’t been determined, but they are common and usually don’t last long. They also don’t generally indicate any deep issue at hand or long-lasting sleep difficulties. Night terrors may be linked to the immaturity of the central nervous system. Nightmares and night terrors are not the same thing and occur at different phases of the sleep cycle.
If your child experiences night terrors, try to comfort him. However, understand that he may not be consolable because he’s not awake. Keep him safe as many children with night terrors will thrash about and even get up out of bed and walk around disoriented. Don’t try to awaken him, as that will make it harder for him to settle back down. Some experts recommend turning on lights to lessen shadows in the room.
Preventing night terrors
Night terrors can’t necessarily be prevented, but there are some things you can do. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep (about 13 hours including naps). Having a regular, calming nighttime routine that includes going to bed and waking at generally the same time can also help.
One suggestion if your child is having ongoing nighttime episodes is to wake her approximately 15 minutes before she usually experiences night terrors. Try this for seven nights and make sure you get her fully awake. Keep a chart to track the times of the episodes and talk to your pediatrician before considering this step.
Make sure to tell any family or caregivers who put your child to bed that these episodes are occurring. Tell them how to help, what to watch out for, and how to keep your child safe.