Night Terrors: What Are They and How to Cope
What are night terrors?
Night terrors can be really distressing things. It will at some point likely to happen to many children; however, most of them grow out of them and they will not cause any long-term psychological harm to them, but they can be stressful for them whilst they last.
Night terrors are different from nightmares, and should not be confused. A child who is experiencing a night terror is likely to scream and thrash around, and might not recognise you if you try and comfort them whilst they are in the middle of one. This behaviour is more likely to occur if they are woken up abruptly from a deep, non-dream sleep.
This can often be more distressing for the parent but you should know that your child will not be fully awake during these episodes, and the likelihood is that they will no memory of it the next morning.
So why are night terrors different from nightmares? Well, nightmares occur when you are in REM sleep or dream sleep. Your child might be able to wake themselves up from their nightmare and might be able to remember and describe the dream to you, depending on their age obviously.
Night terrors, on the other hand, are incredibly common in children aged between three and eight years old. Like we have previously said, a child who experiences night terrors, might audibly scream, shout and thrash around. They can be extremely scared and panicked and might jump out of bed. Even though their eyes will be open, they will not be fully awake. Night terrors are likely to occur at the beginning of the night and can continue for fifteen minutes. It is also not uncommon for the child to have more than one night terror during the night.
Although they are more common in children, they can also affect adults as well, and they can be very distressing for someone to witness. Those who are suffering from the night terror may find themselves crying, sweating, breathing fast, and with a rapid heart rate. They vary in severity from person to person, and some people even require medical assistance.
Some experts have described night terrors as altered states of consciousness. Dick Ferber describes this state by saying;
“…imagine being awakened at 2am by your alarm clock because you have to give a child medication. You stumble out of bed, go to the kitchen, and completely forget why you are there. So you stand there, confused. This is because you are not completely awake, yet not asleep.”
They are a form of parasomnia, which is a set of altered states of consciousness that occur from partial awakenings from stage IV sleep.
How to spot a night terror
It is fairly obvious when your child is having a night terror, but here are some quick symptoms that they might be displaying;
- They might appear to be scared and panicky or even confused and disorientated.
- You might hear them scream, shout or even cry, or they might just babble or talk complete nonsense.
- They might start to hit things or even throw things during a night terror
- They might wet the bed – this is particularly noticeable if they are usually dry overnight as well.
- It is not unusual for your child to even get up and move around, but be aware, they might not recognise you when you try and comfort them.
- If they have a night terror, they will not be able to remember what happened to them the following day, and it is advisable not to discuss this with them. We discuss this in more detail later on.
What causes them?
It is believed that night terrors are caused when the central nervous system gets over-aroused during sleep. Experts believe that this is more prevalent in children because the central nervous system regulates the sleep and waking brain activity, but in young children, this is still developing and maturing.
Experts also believe though that night terrors can also be inherited. Eighty percent of children who have experienced night terrors also had family members who have also suffered similar sleep disturbances, which could include sleepwalking.
There are also times in a child’s life, where they might be more likely to experience night terrors as well. Children who are over-tired, stressed or ill can be more prone to them; or if they have just started taking a new or different medication. They might also be more likely to experience a night terror if they are sleeping in a different and unfamiliar environment.
Other triggers can include anything that wakes your child up from a deep sleep. This could be excitement, anxiety, a sudden noise, or needing to go to the toilet.
What can I do to help them?
Like we have previously said, for people witnessing night terrors, particularly if you are a parent witnessing your child have one it can be incredibly frightening and upsetting. Experts highlight how important it is though to stay calm and not to panic. You should react by remaining completely calm and simply wait for the terror to subside. Make sure you stay with your child and do not allow them to harm themselves, particularly if they are thrashing around.
Experts warn about the dangers of trying to wake your child in the middle of a night terror, as this is unlikely to help, and will instead leave your child feeling agitated, confused and disorientated. The night terror will begin to settle down by itself, and it is likely that they will go back to sleep themselves within a few minutes.
Like we have said often, there are underlying problems, such as psychological stress, phobias and post-traumatic disorders that are often linked with night terrors, so you can try and provide long-term help to your child by addressing these conditions and helping them to deal with what might be troubling them in the first place. If it is an adult who is suffering from night terrors, the same thing applies. Try and get to the bottom of anything that might be causing the stress, and try and address this.
When children have night terrors, they are unlikely to have any lasting negative effects on the child. So, all you can do is just sit calmly with them until it has passed. Trying to discuss these events with them afterwards will likely embarrass them and cause them more stress since they have no memory of them, so it is best not to question them.
So, simply remember these simple tips;
- Stay close to your child to ensure that they do not get hurt
- Under no circumstance, no matter how tempting it is, do not try and wake the child, as you will only worsen the situation by doing so.
- Even if you want to try and find out if they remember anything, do not mention the night terror. This will likely embarrass them, and make them feel like they have done something wrong, which will only exacerbate the situation, causing more stress, which will then lead to more happening.
- Remember the importance of ensuring your child has a healthy lifestyle, as this will help to reduce the chances of the night terrors happening. This includes healthy exercise, a healthy diet, and sticking to a routine.
How can you prevent them?
In extreme cases, medication can be given, but generally, particularly with children, there is no treatment for night terrors; however, there are certain measures that you can take to try and prevent them from happening.
Firstly, with children, try and make their bedtime routine a completely stress free time and make sure they feel completely relaxed. Establish a calm routine, and ensure that they go to the toilet before settling down for the night to encourage them to stay asleep. One mistake that parents all too often make is by keeping your child up for longer to make them more tired. This is actually one of the worst things that you can do, as over-tiredness can often be a cause of the problem.
Although it is unlikely that your child will remember anything about the night terror, do try and remember that the fact that they are having them could be a sign that they are feeling a little bit insecure and might imply that they need a little bit of reassurance; particularly if it follows an event, like starting school or nursery.
When should you contact your GP?
Like we said, there is no immediate treatment for night terrors; however, this does not mean that you should feel like you cannot take them to the doctor.
If you begin to get worried that the night terrors are occurring more frequently than you would like, contact your doctor right away. There are things that can be offered, and your GP might refer your child to a sleep specialist.
They might be able to spot other underlying signs that could be causing the night terrors to be happening, such as enlarged tonsils, which are known to cause breathing problems.
You should also contact a medical professional if you believe that your child is at risk of harming themselves because of their night terrors. We briefly mentioned that in extreme cases, medication can be offered. This is often a short course of anti-depressants or anti-anxiety drugs.
If your child thrashes during their night terror, it is so important to try and look to see if there is a pattern to their thrashing. If it is more rhythmic, or if it involves only one limb, and if the thrashing occurs mostly in the early morning, as opposed to the evening, there might be a possibility that it could be a seizure as opposed to a night terror, which obviously requires medical attention.