Night terrors typically occur in children ages 3-12, with a peak onset at age 3 1/2.
There are two main types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM). Non-REM sleep has stages, and night terrors happen during the transition from stage 3 to stage 4. They typically occur approximately 90 minutes after the child falls asleep.
Yael Levy recalls having chronic nightmares as far back as elementary school, when she was living in Israel. The grandchild of Holocaust survivors, she says her dreams were filled with images of suffering and death.
In one recurrent nightmare, Levy was trapped in a concentration camp, facing death. In another, she was drowning in deep water. At their worst, the nightmares occurred on an almost weekly basis, leaving her jittery and desperately fatigued.
"I would wake up so terrified that I was afraid...
Night terrors are distinctly different from the common nightmares, which occur during REM sleep. Night terrors are characterized by frequent recurrent episodes of intense crying and fear during sleep, with difficulty arousing the child. Unlike nightmares, most children do not recall a dream after a night terror episode, and they usually do not remember the episode the next morning. Night terrors are frightening episodes that can disrupt family life.
An estimated 1%-6% of children experience night terrors. Boys and girls are equally affected. Children of all races also seem to be affected equally. It is a disorder that is usually outgrown by adolescence.
Night Terrors Causes
Night terrors tend to run in families. While most of the time they have no specific cause, night terrors can sometimes result from:
The typical night terror episode usually begins approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep. The child sits up in bed and screams, appearing awake but is confused, disoriented, and unresponsive to stimuli. Although the child seems to be awake, the child does not seem to be aware of the parents’ presence and usually does not talk. The child may thrash around in bed and does not respond to comforting by the parents.
Most episodes last 1-2 minutes, but they may last up to 30 minutes before the child relaxes and returns to normal sleep.
If the child does awake during a night terror, only small pieces of the episode may be recalled. Usually, the child does not remember the episode upon waking in the morning.