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Nightmares and night terrors

Nightmares and night terrors

by Dr Caroline Hendry (PhD Developmental Biology)

Night terrors. As if the phrase itself isn’t scary enough, the reality of dealing with a night terror can be frightening. Imagine you wake to a blood-curdling scream, your child thrashing around in the sheets; sweaty, pulse racing, glassy-eyed. Nothing you say or do can get through to them. That’s what it’s like to face a night terror, which affect approximately 5% of children in the Westernised world. But what are night terrors? What causes them and is there any way to stop them?

Night terrors: not so terrifying after all

While the name might be scary, a night terror is actually just another form of sleep disorder, similar to sleep-walking. When a person is having a night terror they are asleep, and believe it or not they don’t usually remember anything in the morning. There is nothing bad associated with night terrors in the long term; no psychological harm or lasting damage, and children usually grow out of them with time.

How to recognize a night terror

There are some key attributes of night terrors that can help you to recognize when one is occurring in your child. These include:

-          Screaming and thrashing around in the bed

-          No response to comforting; often the child will not recognize you or realize that you are there

-          Changes in their body such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing, and sweating

-          Your child may possibly get up out of bed and move around the house, similar to sleep walking or even running

How is a night terror different to a nightmare?

Although they may sound similar, a night terror is very different to a nightmare. A nightmare occurs during dream sleep, otherwise known as REM sleep. In contrast, night terrors occur in non-dream sleep, possibly due to a disturbance during the deepest stage of sleep, known as Stage IV sleep. Nightmares are different because:

-          Your child can usually remember a nightmare or parts of it

-          Your child can wake and feel scared because of the nightmare

-          Nightmares in children are usually caused by a negative experience, such as a fight, a scary film or something stressful that has happened

What should you do during a night terror?

As difficult as it may be, the best thing to do during a night terror is to sit close by and wait it out. An episode will usually last about 10 minutes or so. During this time, any attempt to comfort or wake your child may in fact make it worse. Of course, if your child is at risk of injuring themselves then do what you can to gently restrain them. Once the night terror is over it is safe to wake your child, and doing so may even help to prevent them from having another episode.

How to prevent night terrors

Since night terrors are linked to disruptions in the sleep cycle, in order to avoid night terrors you should ensure that your child’s bedtime routine is as consistent and relaxing as possible. Avoid lively play, bright lights, loud noises and bright screens immediately prior to bed. Implement a calm bedtime routine around the same time every night and stick to it. It’s also worthwhile double checking your child’s sleeping environment for other possible disturbances: a nearby radio or TV, bright lights and foreign noises all have the potential to cause a sleep disturbance.

If you notice that night terrors always occur at a particular time, then try gently waking your child fifteen minutes or so prior to this time, every night for about a week. Doing so will prevent the particular sleeping pattern that gives rise to the terrors, but won’t affect sleep quality in the long-term.

When to get help

If night terrors are occurring every night, or several times per night, then it’s probably a good idea to talk to your GP. There may be an underlying medical issue that is causing a disruption to the sleep cycle, for example difficulty breathing due to allergies. It’s also a good idea to see your GP if the terrors become so frequent and intense that your child is either a danger to themselves or becomes extremely tired during the day.

Want to know more about night terrors? Check out this fact sheet from the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne or here for more information on children's sleep from Monash Children's Hospital/


Say! You might also be interested in reading one of these equally enthralling articles:

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Common sleep training mistakes: part one

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