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If you have ever rushed into the room while your child is having a night terrors, you are probably terrified also. After all, no parents likes to see their child in discomfort. Also, these episodes can be particularly alarming due to the fact that children often become disoriented and seem very distressed. Night terrors are not your average nightmares.
The Difference Between Night Terrors and Nightmares
Night terrors are different from night mares in two particular ways. First, children who have nightmares can remember what caused them to be frightened. They can also be awakened if they are distressed in their sleep.
During night terrors, neither of these are the case.
So, what is a night terror?
A night terror is an over-arousal of the central nervous system during sleep. During such an episode, your child may experience:
- distressed crying
- sleep walking
- increased heart rate
- increased breathing rate
This can last anywhere from a few minutes to 30 minutes, but just a few minutes is much more likely.
Who Gets Night Terrors?
Night terrors occur in children ages 3-12, most often, but can been found in children as young as 18 months. Night terrors occur in less than 5% of children. Also, it is common that 80% of children who get night terrors have a family member who had them as a child.
Why Do Night Terrors Occur?
Night terrors can occur for any of the following reasons:
- recent changes that are rather large
- a diet, medicine or vitamin change
- change in sleep schedule
- illness, fever
- sleeping away from home or in a new environment
- too much caffeine
When Do Night Terrors Occur?
Night terrors occur about 1.5-3 hours after a child has gone to sleep. We all have dreams and even nightmares during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Night terrors occur during non-REM sleep, when the child is transitioning from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to light REM sleep. It is at this time that their system can’t quite make the transition smoothly, due to one or more of the factors listed above, that a night terror occurs.
Should Your Child See A Doctor?
According to the National Sleep Foundation, a special visit to the pediatrician isn’t particularly needed, but every parent must make this decision. However, if night terrors are becoming more common, causing noticeable daytime fatigue or cause the child to risk injuring themself, a visit may be in order.
What Should You Do About Night Terrors?
During a terror
During night terrors, you should offer your child calm and gentle comfort, like a hand on their body. Perhaps a light squeeze of your hand. You may also need to gently restrain your child if they could potentially hurt themself.
It is recommended that you do not attempt to wake your child. Because the child is quite likely disoriented, waking them will probably make them more upset and cause the terror to be worse for them.
After a terror
If you see that your child is having night terrors, you should keep a sleep diary that covers 1-2 weeks to determine if there is any pattern that can be found. You’ll have to include anything that could be a possible trigger listed above in addition to the tracking of sleep. If you do plan to go to the pediatrician about sleep terrors, this is likely something they’ll want you to do anyways.
If you notice that your child is having terrors at approximately the same time each night, you could consider a pre-emptive awakening 10-15 minutes before the terror usually strikes. You will have to test a bit to see how much you have to wake the child to have an impact. Disrupting the sleep cycle could possibly help your child avoid a terror.
Finally, you should probably also make the following changes that are applicable to see if there are improvements:
- keep a very regular sleep schedule: get consistent naps during the day at the same time (if they are still napping age) as well as have bedtime happening at the same time each evening
- do not allow the child to get over-tired
- decrease stress
- use a calming bedtime routine that could include a relaxing bath and some reading time
Overall, night terrors can be incredibly distressing for a parent to witness. Due to the fact that your child won’t even remember it occurred, it is actually a bit less traumatic for them. So, take heart in that! Your child will also outgrow these terrors by age 12, but often quite a bit before. The most important thing to do for your child if they are experiencing night terrors is to stay calm and offer them comfort during the episode. Then, see if you can determine any triggers as well as make changes to their schedule so they get plenty of sleep.
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