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What Are Night Terrors & How Can I Help My Child Cope?

child afraid

As a parent, one of the most heartbreaking things we do is comfort our kids after they've had a nightmare. Hearing your child cry or call out for you after they've woken from a deep sleep because of a bad dream is just so sad! Especially for younger kiddos, who don't quite understand that dreams and nightmares aren't real and can't really hurt them. But as bad as nightmares can be, they don't come close to trying to comfort your child when they suffer from night terrors. Night terrors aren't your standard nightmare of bad dream - this sleep phenomenon can render your child inconsolable, and leave you struggling to find a way to make them feel better.

What are night terrors?

Night terrors aren't nightmares - that's an important distinction to make. Night terrors are frequent or recurrent episodes of sleep disruption which cause intense crying or fear during sleep. If your child is experiencing a night terror, you might find it difficult to wake them. They're similar to sleepwalking in that sense. Night terrors can happen to anyone, but are particularly common in kids between the ages of 3-12, and it's estimated that approximately 1-6% of kids suffer from them.

If your child is in the throes of a night terror, they'll usually cry hysterically and with great fear, and may thrash around in bed. It may be hard to wake them or stop the episode, which can make it even more difficult for parents to witness. They typically last a few minutes, but can go on for longer. Once the episode is over, your child will simply calm down and go back to sleep. When they wake in the morning, they will have no memory of the episode, since they occur when the child is in deep sleep.

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Three years old child crying in bed. Sad boy on pillow in bedroom
Credit: iStock

What causes night terrors?

When a child is sleeping, their central nervous system can become over-stimulated, causing night terrors. Unlike dreams and nightmares, which happen in the rapid eye movement (REM) stage of sleep, night terrors happen during deeper sleep. They usually happen 2-3 hours after a child has fallen asleep, during a transition from deeper REM sleep to light REM sleep. This transition is usually smooth, but in some cases, it can cause feelings of fear and panic in the sleeper.

There are some things that can make night terrors more common. They've been noted in children who are overtired or sick, who've had too much caffeine, or who have started a new medication. Stress and unfamiliarity with their surroundings can also trigger night terrors in some children.

How can you help your child cope with night terrors?

Watching your child in the throes of a night terror can be brutal on parents. But as hard as it might be, it's best not to wake them during the night terror. You likely won't be able to rouse them from sleep, and if they do wake up, they're going to be confused and upset. The best course of action is wait it out, and stay close to your child to make sure they don't hurt themselves thrashing around in bed.

You can help prevent night terrors by reducing any stress your child is under, making sure they're getting enough sleep at night and throughout the day, and limiting their caffeine consumption. If you notice your child has night terrors around the same time each night, try waking them up about 10-15 minutes before to see if that prevents it from happening. The majority of children outgrow night terrors by adolescence. And remember: as scary as it seems, they will have no recollection of the event in the morning.

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