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Coping with Night Terrors: Causes, Symptoms and Prevention

Tuesday, January 14, 2020 10:01 AM

By: Lauren McRae

It’s 2 a.m. and you hear a frightening scream or shout from your child’s room. It could simply be a nightmare or, if it’s reoccurring, your child could be experiencing night terrors (sleep terrors).

Night Terrors

Night terrors are episodes of intense screaming, crying, thrashing or fear during sleep that happen frequently. Night terrors affect almost 40 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 12, and a small percentage of adults. Children usually outgrow sleep terrors by their teenage years.

Episodes of night terrors can last from seconds to a few minutes and are often paired with sleepwalking. They usually occur in the first third to first half of the night and rarely during naps. This is because night terrors occur during N3 sleep, which us the deepest stage of non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep.

Diana Maniev, M.D., NorthShore Department of Pediatrics, offers these guidelines:

Some symptoms of a night terror episode include:

  • A frightened scream or shout
  • Sitting up in bed and frightened
  • Staring wide-eyed
  • Sweating, breathing heavily, flushed face and dilated pupils amongst waking
  • Having no memory of the event the next morning
  • Hard to awaken, being confused
  • Kicking and thrashing
  • Aggressive behavior during an episode

Various factors can contribute to sleep terrors, such as:

  • Sleep deprivation and extreme tiredness
  • Stress
  • Sleep schedule disruptions, travel or sleep interruptions
  • Fever
  • Sleep terrors sometimes can be triggered by underlying conditions that interfere with sleep, such as:
  • Sleep-disordered breathing — a group of disorders that include abnormal breathing patterns during sleep, the most common of which is obstructive sleep apnea
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Some medications
  • Mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety
  • In adults, alcohol use

Night terrors can be very upsetting for parents, who may feel helpless. What can you do to soothe your child during an episode? First, don’t try to wake them. Wait out the episode patiently and make sure your child doesn’t get hurt if they’re sleepwalking or thrashing around.

Also, you can prevent the night terrors from happening in the first place by making sure your child isn’t overly tired, setting a routine bedtime that’s simple and relaxing, and not letting your child stay up too late. Reducing the child’s stress levels is the key to prevention.

Talk to your NorthShore pediatrician if you think your child is experiencing symptoms.