We have all suffered from the occasional nightmare during the night. A nightmare is completely different from a night terror that can affect your child. Night terrors are most common in toddlers and preschoolers. They can affect children up to the age of 12.
A night terror is an episode that occurs in the deepest sleep, usually in the first third of the night. Night terrors can last anywhere from 30 seconds to 45 minutes. After a child has a night terror they usually fall back asleep on their own. Night terrors are not common. They only affect about 3-6% of children. Kids normally outgrow night terrors. They are usually not harmful though they can be scary and distressing as a parent to watch.
During a night terror your child may not be all the way awake. Their eyes may be open, and they may be partially awake. Your child may look like they are looking at you, but show no signs of recognition. During night terrors children tend to yell, scream, cry uncontrollably, bolt upright in bed, sweat, shake, have rapid breathing, kick, punch, or fight. If you try to comfort them they may try to push away from you, or not respond to your calming. Some children also sleepwalk or try to run during night terrors.
The exact cause of night terrors is unknown. There are lots of things that can bring them on though. One thing is it tends to run in families. About 80% of children who suffer from night terrors have at least one parent who had them. Sleep deprivation, erratic sleep schedule, or just plain lack of sleep can increase the likelihood of a night terror occurring. Stress or anxiety, from a move, a new sibling, or starting preschool can also play a factor.
A fever or illness can also cause night terrors. The elevated body temperature from a fever seems to be what causes the night terrors. Sleep disorders such as sleep apnea, or restless leg syndrome can also raise the chance of night terrors. Certain medications or having anesthesia recently after a surgery can also raise the risk of having a night terror. Melatonin can help your child fall asleep faster, but it also can worsen night terrors.
There is no real treatment for night terrors. Thankfully after the episodes have started your child will grow out of them in a few weeks.
It is important when your child has one to remain calm. It can be very concerning to watch, but if you aren’t calm if your child wakes up it can cause them to be more worried or confused. Which can cause them trouble falling back asleep after the episode.
When your child is having a night terror, do not force them awake. This too can cause extra worry or concern for your child that is not needed. Reassure your child calmly, that they are safe and in their home, and you are there.
Safety is important. Make sure their room is safe and they can’t hurt themselves if they try to get out of bed. Add gates to any stairs they may be able to access. If they start to sleep, walk gently and guide them back to their room. Stay near so in case they get somewhere that could be unsafe you would be there to help.
Stick to a routine like your life depended on it. Stick to the bedtime routine exactly every night. If you aren’t home one night, tell your babysitter or family member exactly what routine to follow. The routine will help your child know when bedtime is coming and may help prevent the night terrors.
If you notice that the night terrors come at the same time every night, wake your child up 15-30 minutes before the night terrors start. This can help reset their sleep cycle and stop the night terror from occurring.
If your child has a tendency to push you away or get more elevated in their night terror if you interfere, stay close but don’t interfere.
If your child is potty trained, when the night terror starts try taking them to the potty. Children tend to relax after emptying their bladder.
Preventing night terrors can happen if you find the root cause of them.
Keep their room cool at night, make sure they are in appropriate pajamas so their body temperature doesn’t become too elevated.
Try having a consistent sleep schedule. Waking up, naps, and sleep time should be the same every day. Three to five year olds need 11-13 hours of sleep each 24 hours. This can be broken up between night time sleep and naps.
Encourage using the potty before bed, and making sure their bladder is empty.
If your child has night terrors that last 30 minutes or longer, they start to increase in frequency, or they have other concerning behavior with the night terrors you will want to reach out to your doctor.
Increasing the amount of sleep your child is getting can help prevent night terrors. So talking with your doctor about your child having night terrors may help formulate a plan to help prevent them.
Night terrors are usually no concern. Like many stages in childhood, usually once they start they only last a few weeks before your child has grown out of them.
When your child is having a night terror, do not force them awake! Childhood night terrors can be scary for the parent too. #HealthSurgeon