INSIDE: If your child suffers from night terrors and you are wondering how best to help them, then this post is for you!
If you are a parent whose child suffers with night terrors, then you will know how upsetting it can be to watch them thrashing and screaming in the night. My daughter suffered with these when she was about four years old, and I found them so distressing. Luckily, as is the case with most children, they stopped on their own as she got older, but I struggled to know what to do for the best at the time.
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It can be so difficult to know how to help a child with night terrors. Although they seem awake, they are normally unresponsive and don’t recognise those trying to comfort them. In this post, I’ll uncover some of the mysteries around night terrors, explain what they are, and how they differ from nightmares. I’ll also outline the leading causes and what you can do to help a child who suffers with them.
Table of Contents
- What are night terrors?
- Are night terrors the same as nightmares?
- The signs and symptoms of night terrors
- What causes night terrors in children?
- Impact of night terrors on children
- How to help a child with night terrors
- When to get medical help
- Final thoughts
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What are night terrors?
Night terrors (also known as sleep terrors) are common in children between the ages of 3 and 8. They often peak in intensity when kids are around 3.5 years old. About 40% of children from all ethnic backgrounds get them, and they tend to be more common in girls.
A child who suffers from night terrors will frequently cry, scream and thrash around in the night. Their eyes will usually be wide open, and they behave as though they are terrified of something in the room. Although it’s easy to believe that that they are awake, they are actually still asleep and rarely remember these episodes when they wake up.
Night terrors typically occur early in the night and may last for around 15 minutes, although it can take up to 30 minutes for a child to completely settle and go back to sleep. Sometimes these episodes may reoccur during the night.
Thankfully, although many kids experience night terrors, most grow out of them, and they are not known to cause any long-term psychological problems for children who suffer from them.
Are night terrors THE SAME AS NIGHTMARES?
Although night terrors and nightmares may appear the same, they are in fact quite different.
Nightmares are more common in kids between the ages of 3 and 6 years of age, and again most kids tend to grow out of them.
Unlike night terrors, nightmares tend to happen later in the night. They also cause children to feel extremely anxious or afraid, and often kids can vividly remember and describe their dreams to you when they wake up.
Nightmares can be caused by frightening experiences such as watching scary films or by an underlying worry that a child may have.
There are two main types of sleep: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep and Non-REM Sleep. Night terrors are common during Non-REM sleep and often happen during the first third of the night. However, nightmares occur during REM sleep in the later part of the night.
Signs and symptoms of night terrors
During a night terror, your child may:
- Appear awake as they tend to stare wide-eyed with dilated pupils
- Sit up, thrash around in bed or may even get out of bed and run around
- Scream and cry
- Having a racing heart rate, breathe quickly, sweat and be flushed in the face
- Have no awareness that you are there and will be unresponsive to anything you say
- Seem very confused and distressed
What causes night terrors in children?
There are various factors which may contribute towards causing night terrors, including:
- If a child is overtired or sleep-deprived
- Disrupted sleep patterns caused by travel or the child being woken in the night by loud noises
- Stresses in the child’s life
- Increased excitement
- A full bladder
- If the child has a fever
- Underlying health conditions such as sleep apnoea, resless leg syndrome, depression or anxiety
- Some medications
- A family history of night terrors
Eve G Spratt, MD, MSc explains that there may be a genetic component as to why certain children get night terrors.
Impact of night terrors on children
Although most children do not remember their night terror episodes, they may be overly tired during the day due to their disturbed sleep patterns. This might make it difficult for them to concentrate at school, or it may affect their mood.
Night terrors may also cause a child to have increased anxiety during the day, even though they do not remember the episodes themselves.
Some children may be embarrassed about their night terrors and their inability to control or remember them.
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There is also the risk of a child injuring themselves or someone near to them during a night terror episode. It’s therefore important to closely supervise them to avoid this.
How to help a child with night terrors
If your child has a night terror episode, then you should do the following:
- Stay calm and wait for the episode to pass. They tend to only last for about 15 minutes or so.
- Don’t attempt to wake your child by shouting or shaking them. Waking them like this could distress them further as they are unlikely to recognise you and may become frightened if you try to comfort them.
- Don’t intervene unless your child is at risk of hurting themselves or others.
- If possible, try not to restrain your child as this can cause the night terror episode to last longer. Instead, do all you can to make sure that the space around them is safe. Try to gently guide them back to bed if they start sleepwalking.
- Try to move any potential hazards out of their way.
- Have a gentle chat with them in the morning. They are unlikely to remember the episode but try to establish if anything is worrying them which could have triggered it. Be careful not to cause them concern, though, as this may just add to their anxiety and make the situation worse.
There are various strategies you can use at home to help a child with their night terrors:
Make sure they get enough sleep
Sleep deprivation can be a primary cause of night terrors in children. So, make sure they get enough sleep by getting them to bed on time. This guide from the NHS will help you determine just how much sleep your child should be getting each night based on their age.
Do all you can to ensure they are not disturbed during the night by loud noises or light. Using blackout blinds in your child’s room can help ensure that it is dark enough. A cordless blind is safest for a child’s bedroom. It can also help to block out any background noise which might disturb your child’s sleep. Using earplugs with young children is not safe as they pose a choking hazard. However, you could try using a white noise machine which helps to block out disruptive environmental noises and create a relaxing atmosphere to soothe your child to sleep.
Establish a relaxing bedtime routine for your child
Each evening ensure that your child has a quiet calm routine that helps them wind down for bed. This may include activities such as reading a book or having a warm bubble bath.
Avoid screen time for a couple of hours before bed as the blue light from these devices can suppress melatonin levels and delay sleepiness. If keeping your little ones away from screens is a near impossibility, then get them to wear some blue light blocking glasses instead.
If you need to calm your child down before bed, then practising mindfulness can help to relax them and reduce any anxiety they might have. There are various apps which can help with this including Headspace for Kids which includes child-centred visualisations, breathing exercises and meditations, with packages for different age groups.
Keep your child’s sleep schedule consistent
Try to keep your child’s bedtime and wake up time the same every day, including at weekends. This will help them to fall asleep more easily as their body will become used to the routine, and it will prevent them from becoming overtired.
Help your child cope with stress in their lives
Talk to your child gently to see if there is anything that is worrying them. Perhaps there are problems within the family such as a parental breakup or sibling rivalry which are causing them to be anxious. Are they having trouble with friends at school or do they have other worries which they haven’t shared with you?
Sometimes sharing a storybook with your child about fear and anxiety can help them realise that they are not alone and that lots of other kids have worries too. A Little Spot of Anxiety: A Story About Calming Your Worries by Diane Alber is an excellent place to start.
If you think that your child is struggling with stress or anxiety, it may be worth getting help from their school, your doctor or a mental health professional.
Keep a record and look for patterns
If your child has frequent night terror episodes, then it can be useful to keep a log of them. Every day make a note of what time your child goes to sleep and the exact time that any night terrors begin and how long they last.
Each morning, write a note about the quality of sleep your child had during the previous night: Did they go to sleep quickly or were they woken by anything? If they were disturbed, record the time this happened and how long it took them to go back to sleep. Write down anything that may have interrupted their regular sleep routine such as travelling or staying away from home. Also, make a note of any medications your child took, including the dose and the time it was given.
Over time, this record should help you highlight any patterns or triggers that may be contributing to your child’s night terrors. If they don’t subside and you need medical assistance, this log will be handy in helping your doctor decide on the best course of treatment for your child.
Interrupt the night terror cycle
If your child tends to wake at the same time every night with a night terror, then it may help to wake them 15 minutes before the anticipated time when they usually have a night terror. Do this for seven days, and you may find that this is enough to disrupt their sleep pattern just enough to put an end to the night terrors without adversely affecting their quality of sleep.
Make your home as safe as possible
To stop your child from hurting themselves during a night terror, be sure to close and lock all windows and exterior doors at night. You may even want to consider putting bells or alarms on doors and windows to notify you if they have been opened in the night. Use stairgates to stop your child from falling down the stairs and clear away any trip hazards such as electrical cables and toys. Remove all sharp objects and don’t allow your child to sleep in a bunk bed.
When to get medical help
Although most children eventually grow out of having night terrors, you should get some help from your doctor if your child suffers with them frequently, several times a night or for an extended period of time. They will be able to check whether something that’s easily treatable is causing your child’s night terror episodes.
For the majority of children who only have infrequent night terrors, medical treatment is not required, and these episodes pass on their own with time.
I hope that I’ve helped you gain a better understanding about how to help your child with night terrors. Although it can be very upsetting to watch your child go through night terror episodes, it is at least reassuring to know that in most cases they won’t remember them or be emotionally damaged by them.
If you have any additional tips to share, please add them to the comments section below.
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Thanks for reading,