Any parent whose child has experienced night terrors will know how distressing they can be to watch. During a night terror, your child may wake up glassy eyed, screaming and crying hysterically and be completely inconsolable. In the morning they will have no recollection of the event.
A night terror can be very upsetting to witness but they are surprisingly common and affect an estimated five children in every 100. Generally a night terror is not a sign of any ongoing emotional or developmental problems and most children outgrow them in time.
Night Terrors – Causes
Night terrors are a sleep disorder, much like sleepwalking. They are believed to be an inherited issue as they tend to run in families. Night terrors happen when children get caught half way between being awake and asleep. They are conscious enough to open their eyes and cry or scream but not awake enough to be responsive and calm down.
Common causes of night terrors:
- Over tiredness in children
- Loud or sudden noises at night
- Urge to go to the toilet alone at night
- Stressful situation (things that may frighten, create anxiety)
- Taking certain medicines
How Are Night Terrors Different To Nightmares?
Night terrors usually happen in the early part of the night, before midnight, while children are in the deepest part of their sleep. Nightmares tend to happen in the later part of the night which is when children have most of their dreaming sleep cycles.
When a child has had a nightmare they will often wake up and remember it afterwards. A child may be upset after having a nightmare but when they have a night terror they stay asleep and don’t remember it at all afterwards.
What Should I Do If My Child Has A Night Terror?
When children are experiencing night terrors they seem to partially wake up but not fully. This means that although they can be screaming and even running around the house, they may be completely unresponsive and unaware of your efforts to console them. This can be understandably upsetting for parents.
If your child is having a night terror it is considered best not to try to wake them as this may make them confused and disoriented. Stay with them and make sure they don’t hurt themselves by falling out of bed or bumping themselves. Night terrors can last for anything between 5 and 40 minutes and then your child will be calm again.
Is There Anything I Can Do To Prevent Night Terror?
Although there is no cure for a night terror they seem to get worse when children are overtired or worried about something. If you notice an increase in night terrors it could be worth talking to your child to find out if anything is bothering them. But here are some common things you can do to reduce the possibility of them occurring:
- Try and get adequate good quality sleep, fatigue can contribute to sleep terrors.
- Creating and maintaining a good bedtime routine can be helpful in preventing overtiredness or lack of sleep.
- Create a safe environment in the evening, avoid obstacles where they can injure themselves during the sleep terror.
- In some cases it may be worth seeing a paediatrician for an assessment, especially if the night terrors are very frequent, particularly violent or are keeping the entire household awake for nights on end.
Night terrors can be upsetting for the whole family, but they haven’t been shown to have any harmful effects on children in the future. Focus on keeping your child from hurting themselves while they are having a night terror and chances are they will grow out of it by themselves.