What Are Night Terrors?
Night terrors are episodes of intense screaming, crying, thrashing, or fear during sleep that happen again and again, usually in children ages 3 to 12. New cases peak at age 3 1/2.
There are two main types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM). Night terrors happen during non-REM sleep, usually about 90 minutes after a child falls asleep.
About 1 to 6 in 100 children have night terrors, also known as sleep terrors. They happen to both boys and girls, and to children of all races. Night terrors tend to run in families.
Night terrors vs. nightmares
Night terrors are different from common nightmares, which happen during REM sleep. You might have a hard time waking your child during a night terror episode. Your child likely won't remember the episode the next morning.
Night Terror Signs and Symptoms
Children with night terrors may also have:
- Fast heart rate
- Fast breathing
- Dilated pupils
During a night terror episode, a child might:
- Sit up in bed
- Flail around in bed
- Look awake but be confused
- Seem like they don’t know that a parent is there
- Not talk
- Not respond when a parent comforts them
Most episodes last only a few minutes, but it may take up to 30 minutes before the child relaxes and goes back to sleep.
When to call your doctor
Night terrors are not typically dangerous, but they can disrupt your child's sleep. They are part of a group of sleep disturbances called parasomnias and include sleepwalking (somnambulism), sleep talking (somniloquy), and waking up in a confused state. Parasomnias occur in about half of all children.
It might help ease your anxiety to talk to your child’s doctor. Let them know if your child’s night terrors keep them up often or for more than half an hour. They might be able to rule out other health conditions that can cause night terrors.
Night Terror Causes and Triggers
Night terrors tend to run in families. Most of the time, they have no specific cause. But certain things might play a role, including:
- Sleep deprivation
- Depression or anxiety
- Too much caffeine
- Sleeping in a different place or away from home
- Lack of sleep
- Sleep problems like sleep apnea
- Restless legs syndrome
- Medications that affect the central nervous system (the brain)
- Recent anesthesia for surgery
Night Terror Diagnosis
Your child’s doctor can usually diagnose night terrors based on their medical history and a physical exam.
If they suspect other health problems, they might give tests including:
- An EEG, which measures brain activity, to check for a seizure disorder
- A sleep study (polysomnography) to check for a breathing disorder
Night Terror Treatment
There’s no treatment for night terrors, but they tend to stop as a child gets older.
In rare cases, if the episodes are affecting your child’s daily activities (for example, how they’re doing in school or their relationships with friends and family), their doctor might prescribe low-dose benzodiazepines (such as clonazepam) or tricyclic antidepressants (such as imipramine).
Home Remedies for Night Terrors
Parents might take one or more of these steps:
- Make your child’s room safe so they aren’t hurt during an episode.
- Get rid of anything that might disturb their sleep, like electronic screens or noises.
- Try to lower your child’s stress levels.
- Make sure your child gets enough rest. Don’t let them become too tired or stay up too late.
- Create a relaxing bedtime routine, and stick to it.
- Keep the same wake-up time every day.
Don’t wake your child during an episode. It can make them even more confused, and they might take longer to go back to sleep. Try to wait it out, and make sure they don’t get hurt by thrashing around or tripping on something in their room.
Night Terror Prevention
If your child has a lot of night terrors, there are things you can try that might help. Breaking up their sleep is one example.
- First, note how many minutes after bedtime the night terrors start.
- Wake your child 15 minutes before the expected night terror, and keep them awake and out of bed for 5 minutes. You may want to see if they’ll use the bathroom.
- Continue this routine for a week.
Night terror episodes are short and usually happen over several weeks. Most children outgrow them by their teen years.