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How to Recognize and Deal With Night Terrors in Kids

Written by Jessica Lanerie, M.D. on Aug 23, 2017 8:16:00 AM

We’ve all had nightmares, but do you know what a night terror is? Common in children, night terrors can be a source of stress and sleepless nights for your kids and you. Let’s talk about how to deal with them. 

The Exact Cause Is Unknown

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Night terrors are still somewhat of a mystery to us. We do know they predominately happen in children between ages 3 and 12. Peak ages are typically between 5 and 7. 

As your child grows, there are lots of changes that happen, both physically and mentally. Some experts believe night terrors happen as a result of a child’s over-excited central nervous system during sleep. There is also a correlation among children having night terrors and enduring extra stress in their lives, being on certain medications, not sleeping well or drinking too many caffeinated sodas during the day. 

Night Terrors and Nightmares Differ

Nightmares are vivid, frightening dreams common in young children, though they continue on through adulthood. It’s believed that 90 percent of children experience them at some point during their lives. Children having nightmares can be woken and comforted. They typically can recall some of the content of the dream. 

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Night terrors are different. During a night terror, your child typically won’t awaken entirely. He or she may scream, thrash around, kick and act as though in a panic. Some parents who go to their child’s room to offer comfort find their child sitting in bed with his or her eyes open, yet the child doesn’t seem to notice anyone else’s presence in the room. Children can be woken during a night terror, but it’s not recommended you do so as it could prolong the episode and make it worse for your child. After a night terror is over, children have little difficulty returning to sleep and usually don’t remember the episode in the morning. Nightmares, on the hand, can linger. Children tend to remember a nightmare, which could prevent falling back to sleep because of fear.

Finally, night terrors, which can last from a couple of minutes to a half hour, are more common in children with family members who have also had the disorder. Nearly all children outgrow night terrors by the time they reach adolescence. 

How You Can Help

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Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about a night terror once your child is in the middle of experiencing one – the best you can do is wait it out. There are things you can do before bedtime, however, that might help lessen the chance of night terrors, and there are some things you can do to keep children safe in the middle of an episode: 

  • Establish a comforting bedtime routine. Tuck them in the same way, read them a story or have one last glass of water together. Routine makes children feel safe and can put them at ease before bedtime.
  • Because night terrors can involve uncontrolled physical movement, make sure there isn’t anything in their room or in their beds that can hurt them.
  • If they’re thrashing around, put yourself in between them and anything they have the potential to hurt themselves on.
  • Make sure all doors and windows are locked. If you have stairs in your home, make sure the staircase is gated so they can’t get through and accidentally fall. 

If the night terrors don’t stop and are causing concern, make an appointment with your pediatrician. He or she could suggest some methods that may help or refer you to a sleep specialist to make sure your little one, and you, are getting the best sleep possible. 

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Dr. Jessica Lanerie is a board-certified pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Sienna Plantation Clinic. After receiving her medical degree from Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Medicine in 2013, Dr. Lanerie completed a residency in Pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in 2016. Her clinical interests include weight management, asthma and eczema.

 

Topics: night terrors

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