If you’ve ever had your evening interrupted by the sudden, frantic screaming of your young child who was just sleeping soundly, you know how baffling night terrors can be. Your child’s freaking out, you’re freaking out, and nothing you do seems to help. In fact, your child, who appears to be fully awake, doesn’t even seem to recognize you! So what’s the 411 here? What are night terrors in children?
In this article:
What Are Night Terrors in Children?
According to Dr. Michael McKenna, pediatrician at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health, "‘night terrors’ is a term that refers to disconcerting screaming or crying that a toddler or young child may have at night during sleep." Night terrors, which are different from nightmares, occur in a very small percentage of children, typically between the ages of 2 and 8, and affect boys and girls equally. There are no real treatments or cures for toddler night terrors, but we will discuss some measures that you can take to help your child during a night terror, as well as a nifty method for preventing them. If nothing works for your child, note that most children typically outgrow night terrors at some point during childhood.
What Happens During Night Terrors in Children?
Night terrors in small children tend to happen when your child is moving between light stages of sleep to a deeper stage of sleep. During this transition, large parts of your child’s brain are asleep and in repair mode while a small part that controls their voice and movements is still relatively alert. As such, night terrors in toddlers have distinct behaviors such as kicking, sweating and even sleepwalking—yet the child will have zero recollection of the episode when they wake up the next day. Although they are developmentally normal for some children, they can be very frightening to witness, but rest assured that they are much more traumatic to witness than to experience.
Night Terror Versus Nightmare
Where at first they may seem hard to differentiate, night terrors in children are markedly different from nightmares. Dr. McKenna tells The Bump, “[The term] ‘night terrors’ refers to the hysterical reaction of a child during sleep. Nightmares are dreams that are scary or frightening to an individual (adult or child). It is not clear [what causes night terrors in toddlers], but they are not due to toddler nightmares. These are two entirely separate entities.”
On par with this is the fact that night terrors in toddlers tend to occur soon after falling asleep rather than later in the night or in the early hours of the morning. Another major contrast between these two scary events is what happens after it’s over— a nightmare results in awakening. Baby night terrors end in eventual relaxation and your child will fall back asleep with no recollection of the events of their night terror. If you’re unable to determine whether baby is having nightmares or night terrors, we’ve listed some common children’s night terrors symptoms:
- appearance of being terrified
- screaming / inconsolable crying
- writhing / kicking / pushing away from caregiver
- intense emotional outbursts
- physiological symptoms like high blood pressure, large pupils and excessive sweating
What Causes Night Terrors in Children?
No one knows exactly what causes night terrors in children, but many sleep associations agree that night terrors in children are genetic and do tend to run in families. Here are some causes to take note of so you can mitigate future recurrences.
- Sleep deprivation. Lack of sleep has been named as the top reason for a child to experience night terrors. A regular bedtime and nap schedule can reduce the occurrence of night terrors in children who are prone to them.
- Stressful life events. Emotional stress creates physical stress on the body as well, and could make your child more prone to night terrors.
- Fever. Fevers are tough on children, making their little bodies more susceptible to tension and agitation, which leads to higher likelihood of toddler night terrors.
- Medications. Medications can affect the central nervous system (the brain) and its sleeping patterns, thus bringing on night terrors in children.
- Sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings. For little children, sleeping in an unfamiliar place can cause overstimulation of their brains. The uncertainty and need to adjust may cause the child to experience a night terror.
- An overfull bladder. If your child was recently potty-trained, the sensation of an overfull bladder can cause confusing arousal of their developing nervous systems.
- Head injury. Sleep patterns are affected by head injuries; night terrors in toddlers are more likely to develop after a head injury due to the disruption of their routines and patterns.
What to Do If a Child Had a Night Terror
It truly is a terror to witness your child experiencing a night terror because you cannot simply console your little one and coax them back to bed. Many parents wonder how to help kids with night terrors without interfering, especially if this becomes a regular occurrence in your child’s nighttime routine. The following are some precautions to take for night terrors in toddlers age 2 to 8.
- Help them return to normal sleep. The gentlest way is to try to help your child back to sleep by making soothing comments and holding him or her if they allow you to. Awakening your child by shaking and shouting at them will cause more fear and deepen children’s night terror symptoms.
- Remove anything dangerous in their path. Your main goal is to protect the child having the night terror. While going through a night terror, your child may move around—give them space to work through the night terror but be involved to steer them from falling down stairways, running into furniture or walls, and hurting siblings in the process.
- Advise any caregivers. Make sure to inform babysitters and family members watching your child with night terrors so they will know what to do if one happens.
Can You Prevent or Treat Night Terrors in Children?
There are no cures or “fixes” for night terrors. According to Medical News Today, there is no scientific evidence to show long-term effects of night terrors in children—they will simply outgrow them. You can, however, take preventative measures to minimize episodes. Below are some home remedies that serve to prevent baby’s night terrors.
- Eliminate all sources of sleep disturbances. Is it too bright or too dark? Too loud or too quiet? Your child’s environmental preferences can minimize or prevent night terrors from happening.
- Calming Routines. Having a bedtime routine that involves calming activities like bedtime stories, cuddles, songs and bath time will ensure a restful sleep. Over-stimulation prior to bedtime can cause a higher likelihood for toddler night terrors to occur.
- Lengthen their sleep time. Overtiredness is also a contributing factor; young children require at least ten hours of sleep at night with at least an hour-long nap. Anything less will create a fatigued child that is more prone to night terrors.
Although there’s no way to completely resolve night terrors in your child, Dr. McKenna tells us, “with some work it is certainly possible to greatly reduce the frequency of night terror episodes and over a few weeks extinguish them.” Keep track of when the night terrors are occurring, and see if you can find a pattern. If you’re able to do this, “about an hour or so before that time, go into your child's room and gently rouse them. You do not need to get them fully awake. Get them to sit up, open their eyes, recite the alphabet or anything like that. Just rouse them enough so that they are semi-awake to maybe mumble a word or turn over or shift positions. The goal is to disrupt the sleep cycle enough so that their brain's sleep patterns reset and then they do not have the night terror. If you do this consistently, you should quickly start to see the episodes be less troubling, less often and then eventually stop.”