Information on the causes of sleep disorders, nightmares, and night terrors in children.
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- What are Night Terrors?
- Diagnosing Night Terrors
- What Causes Night Terrors?
- Help for Night Terrors
- More Information on Night Terrors
What are Night Terrors?
Nightmares and night terrors are two different things, though both can be distressing for little ones and their parents alike.
Night terrors are a fairly common childhood sleep disorder that is characterized by extreme terror while sleeping and the inability to fully wake up. While your child may be screaming, crying and desperately trying to escape something, with eyes wide open, he or she is in fact still in a state of sleep.
In this type of sleep disorder the sleep state is a non-dreaming state and usually there is no scary dream situation or object that has caused this terror, as is the case with nightmares. Night terrors in children are a fairly mysterious disturbance that occurs during deep sleep where your child will experience terror and fear without apparent cause.
These episodes can last anywhere between a few minutes to an hour, and generally your child will have no recollection of the event the next morning.
What is the Difference between Night Terrors and Nightmares?
Nightmares and night terrors are different in a number of ways. For a start, nightmares occur during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, also known as dream sleep, whereas night terrors occur during slow wave sleep or deep sleep. Another difference is that a child having a nightmare will often wake up and have a memory of a bad dream. Children waking from a nightmare may be able to tell you details of what scared them and may even be too scared to go back to sleep or go to bed the following night. A child having a night terror is aware of the panic and feelings of fear, but aware of little else. The fear is usually not accompanied by a feared situation or object as in a nightmare and this lack of dream state often leaves the individual feeling disorientated and confused upon waking. In most cases, the only memory attached to the experience is that of a distinct feeling of danger, and even then, many children will wake the following morning with no memory of what happened the night before.
Diagnosing Night Terrors
During a consultation, your general health practitioner or your child’s pediatrician will ask for a brief description of the symptoms, the frequency of the night terrors and how they are affecting your child. A full physical examination may be necessary to rule out possible medical causes. These results will determine if any other testing may be necessary.
Possible Additional Tests
- An electroencephalogram (EEG), which is a test to measure brain activity, may be performed if a seizure disorder is suspected
- Polysomnography (a combination of tests used to check for adequate breathing while asleep) may be done if a breathing disorder is suspected
- A psychological evaluation if a psychological disorder is suspected
Who Suffers from Night Terrors? Can they be prevented?
Night terrors are most common in children between the age of 2 to 6 (although they can occur at any age) and they affect approximately 15% of all children. Because night terrors in children usually disappear with age, radical treatment is usually not necessary. There are however ways of minimizing trauma and preventing recurring episodes.
What are the symptoms of night terrors?
A night terror can be described as an overwhelming feeling of fear, danger or panic during a state of deep sleep. It may be accompanied by various factors including:
- Intense crying, screaming or attempts to escape
- Not easily woken
- Confusion and disorientation
- Inability to recall what happened
- Unresponsive to stimuli
- Increased heart rate
- Increased breathing rate
- Excessive sweating during episode
What Causes Night Terrors?
- Unresolved psychological conflicts such as chaotic home environment, overheard arguments, anxiety, some form of loss or grief
- A traumatic experience
- Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Stressful life events
- Fatigue or sleep deprivation
- Violence on television
- Fever or illness
- Side effects of certain medications such as antihistamines, decongestants, beta blockers, and antidepressants, as well as withdrawal from addictive drugs.
Help for Night Terrors
There are a number of treatment tips that you can implement at home to help prevent night terrors and to calm your child during Night Terrors. Essentially, treatment is aimed towards preventing further episodes by removing stressful triggers, preventing any harm coming to your child during episodes and soothing your distressed child back to sleep after a night terror.
Medical treatment is seldom needed unless night terrors are caused by another medical condition.
Home Techniques for Preventing Night Terrors
- First make sure that your child is getting a sufficient amount of sleep as sleep deprivation is a major cause of night terrors in children.
- Ensure that your child’s room is safe and secure; if he or she has a tendency to get out of bed during these episodes this will help avoid physical harm.
- Night terrors often occur at a certain time in the sleep cycle (between the first and second hour of sleep). If you notice the pattern, try gently waking your child 15 minutes beforehand.
- Don’t let your child watch scary movies, and don’t read scary stories before bedtime.
- During a night terror, be gentle and comforting without forcefully waking your child or causing further fright with loud voices or sudden movements. Turning on the lights, TV or radio can help provide gentle transition into wakefulness.
- Calm your child and offer gentle reassurance that you are there.
- Attempt to assist your child back to sleep by soothing him or her.
Prescription medication is generally not used to treat night terrors. While Benzodiazepine medications (such as diazepam) will often reduce night terrors they have serious side effects and are not recommended for children.
More Information on Night Terrors
Are There Other Disorders that may be Related to Night Terrors?
A number of other health conditions and sleep disorders are related to night terrors, such as:
- Attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
- Bipolar disorder
- Seizure Disorder
- Febrile illness
Tips for Coping with your Child’s Night Terrors
- Don’t try and shake your child awake, or hug too tightly. This will add to their fear and need to escape. Rather stroke children gently and speak to them in a soothing voice.
- Stay with your child until he or she falls back asleep. Just having you there will be a comfort and help to reduce anxiety.
- Turn on the lights and create an atmosphere of quiet wakefulness. This is a lot less scary than a dark quiet room and will help to gently wake your child.
- If the night terror leads to sleep walking, gently guide your child back to bed without waking him or her. Be sure to put safety measures into place so that your child cannot wander into danger. Avoid bunk beds and keep the room clear of hazardous obstacles.
- Check that your child does not have a fever or illness that may be causing the night terrors.
- If you suspect that the night terrors are related to an emotional issue or excessive stress or anxiety, set up an appointment with a child psychologist or licensed counselor.
Putting a good bedtime routine into practice will not only help ensure that your child is getting sufficient sleep each night, but it will promote a sense of safety and security. Less stimulating activities such as story time and quiet conversation are a good way to ease your child into relaxed state ready for sleep.