About Night Terrors

By Tanya Konerman
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As a parent, you know the importance of a good night’s sleep for your child. When night terrors disturb his sleep, you might be frightened by his actions and words and worry about his safety. Knowing what to expect, how to best help him during and after an episode and how to help prevent future night terrors will help your whole family during this sometimes upsetting stage of development.

Night Terrors Versus Nightmares

According to KidsHealth, night terrors are not really dreaming episodes like nightmares, but more like abrupt physical fear reactions which occur while your child transitions between early-night deep sleep and late-night dream sleep. During your child’s first 1.5 to three hours of sleep, she might suddenly open her eyes; sit up or thrash about; cry, talk or yell; or breathe rapidly or sweat. You may have trouble consoling or conversing with her, and she will not likely remember the episode -- which can last up to 30 minutes -- the next day. This is known as a night terror and occurs in 1 to 6 percent of children 18 months to 12 years old, although these sleep issues usually arise around 3 to 4 years of age.

Possible Contributing Factors

Children who have a close relative with similar sleep disturbances or relatives who sleepwalk are 80 percent more likely to experience night terrors. Other factors also contribute to their occurrence, including fatigue, stressful life events, illness with fever, certain medications that affect the central nervous system and anesthesia given for surgery. In addition, sleeping away from home or in a new environment can cause night terrors.

Parent Roles During Terrors

Wanting to comfort your child and help him get back to sleep during a night terror is natural. However, trying to reason with him is useless because he is not really awake even if he appears to be, and trying to wake him might prolong the event, KidsHealth reports. Baby Center recommends waiting out the night terror, keeping him safe without restraining him physically, and keep lighting low while speaking to him quietly and reassuringly until he calms down and falls back asleep, usually within 10 to 30 minutes.

Preventing Future Episodes

Your child might experience night terrors only once or several times before her nervous system matures enough to prevent them naturally. In the meantime, according to Baby Center, you can help lessen their likelihood by ensuring your child gets enough sleep, goes to bed before she gets too tired and providing calming bedtime rituals, including a soothing bath, story time and cuddling. When away from home, try to stick to the same rituals. If your child experiences multiple night terrors or you are concerned about an underlying medical cause, consult your child’s pediatrician.

About the Author

Based in Bloomington, Ind., Tanya Konerman is a writer/editor with more than 20 years of experience. Her work has appeared in "At-Home Mother," "Parents," "Career Woman," "Employment News," "Bloomington Business Network," "Bloomington Monthly" and the "Herald-Times." She also worked in advertising and public relations for 10 years. Konerman holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and psychology from Indiana University.