Should I Be Worried About My Child’s Night Terrors?

A Psychiatrist in Maryland Explores the Phenomenon of Night Terrors in Children

Is your child suffering from night terrors? Night terrors, which are not to be confused with nightmares, are rare sleep disruptions that occur during a key transition from non-REM to REM sleep. When this transition doesn’t occur smoothly, your child can experience a night terror. Unlike nightmares, night terrors do not cause your child to wake up. That’s why they can appear inconsolable or unresponsive to your attempts to comfort them. 

In our latest blog post, a psychiatrist in Maryland explores what causes night terrors in children and how you can prevent them. Learn more now! 

What Are Night Terrors?

Night terrors can cause significant distress for your child and the rest of your family

small girl holding pillow

Night terrors are typically characterized by intense screaming and crying during the night. During an episode, a child might begin to flail around and scream while still asleep. Episodes can last anywhere from several seconds to several minutes. 

Other signs that your child is or has experienced a night terror episode include:

  • Sweating or breathing heavily
  • Appearing awake but confused 
  • Being unresponsive and inconsolable to your attempts to comfort them
  • Not being able to wake up
  • Showing little to no memory of the prior night’s episode

Some people mix night terrors up with nightmares or use the two terms interchangeably. However, they are different from each other. A child might remember part or all of a nightmare after waking up. Children do not wake up during a night terror, nor do they remember anything once they wake up in the morning. Nightmares also tend to be more common than night terrors. 

Are Night Terrors Normal?

The occasional night terror is not usually indicative of a severe health problem in children. However, if your child’s night terrors become more frequent and start to disrupt their sleep patterns and anyone else’s ability to sleep properly, you should reach out to your doctor for help. Night terrors that cause injury, lead to problems with functioning normally during the day, or extend beyond the teenage years should also be brought up to your child’s physician. 

What Causes Night Terrors?

A psychiatrist in Maryland explores possible causes behind night terrors

small girl sleeping with bear

Night terrors typically occur two to three hours after your child falls asleep. It is around this time when the mind moves from a deep stage in the non-REM sleep stage to REM sleep. We can experience dreams and nightmares during the lighter REM sleep stage. When this transition fails to go smoothly, a night terror can occur. The rough transition can cause intense fear and distress in your child.

There are a number of possible causes behind your child’s night terrors, such as:

  • Not getting enough sleep 
  • Moving to a new and unfamiliar environment, such as a new house or sleepaway camp
  • Starting a new medication
  • Drinking too much caffeine

How Do I Help My Child During a Night Terror?

Seeing night terror can be distressing, but you shouldn’t try to wake them

child fallen asleep at desk

It can be distressing to see your child experiencing a night terror. You may feel helpless or at a loss with what you can do to help them. 

While it might be tempting to try to wake your child, the best thing you can do is wait for the night terror to end on its own. Most of the time, you won’t be able to wake your child during a night terror. Even if you do succeed in waking them, they may become confused and disoriented. Waking them up can also make it harder for them to go back to sleep. Most children fall asleep on their own pretty quickly once the night terror ends. 

How Do I Stop Night Terrors From Occuring?

Night terrors can be challenging to manage, but there are some strategies that you can try 

child sleeping on green sofa

Right now, there aren’t any treatments available for night terrors. However, as a parent, there are several things you can do to help prevent them. If your child appears stressed or concerned about something, you should find out what is causing their emotional distress and help reduce it. Maybe they are feeling stressed out about moving to a new environment or are struggling with fatigue. 

If they don’t follow a regular sleep routine, they may also be more vulnerable to experiencing night terrors. Establishing a bedtime routine can also prevent your child from staying up too late and ensure they are getting enough rest. If none of these recommendations are working and your child is still experiencing night terriers, you need to talk to your pediatrician. They may refer you to a sleep specialist for help. 

Night terrors can be terrifying to watch, but they do not usually indicate a serious illness in your child. However, if your child continues to experience them after efforts to prevent them or growing older, you need to seek professional help. Contact the Psych Associates of Maryland for more information.


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