A parent is awakened by screaming coming from her child’s bedroom.
When Mom runs in, her child looks like he is awake. His eyes are wide open and his pupils are dilated.
He is breathing fast and his heart feels like it is pounding out of his chest.
Frightened and confused, he may be thrashing in his bed or up running around in the room.
Mom may not be able to awaken him.
During this night terror, it is hard to figure out who is more terrorized: the child or the parent.
Night terrors are a type of sleep disorder that occurs in about 3-6% of children.
The episodes usually start between 4-12 years of age, but toddlers and even adults sometimes have them.
They tend to run in families and are more common in boys 5-7 years of age.
These frightening episodes can be triggered by fever, lack of sleep and by stress.
Sometimes they can be associated with conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea, migraines and head injuries. Some medicines, including certain antihistamines, can trigger them.
Night terrors usually occur about 2-3 hours after a child goes to sleep and can last as long as 10-20 minutes.
The child is usually completely unaware of her surroundings.
After the episode passes, the child goes right back to sleep and usually has no recollection of the event the next morning.
Nightmares, in contrast, usually happen in the early morning hours. A child usually can be awakened from them and often needs reassurance before he can go back to sleep.
Portions of nightmares are often remembered.
During night terrors, the person with the child should remain calm and speak in a soothing voice.
The child can be gently restrained.
Although night terrors generally go away on their own, certain things can be done to help with them.
The child’s sleeping environment should be made safe to minimize injuries in case he does get up and run around during them.
Parents can make sure the child gets more sleep.
A relaxing bedtime routine can be initiated.
The family can discuss any stress in the child’s life and come up with a plan on how to deal with it.
For prolonged or very disruptive episodes (such as those leading to excessive daytime sleepiness in the child), help from a counselor or a sleep specialist can be sought.