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Is it a night terror?

Did you know little over 80% of school aged children display signs of night terrors, sleep walking, nightmares or sleep talking? Typically in boys although girls are still prone to night terrors, and aged between 3 and 12 years of age. Here I will discuss the night terror, it is not to be confused with nightmares as they both show individual signs and are very different from each other.

A night terror will typically occur in the first part of the night’s sleep, the deeper sleep (NREM). This is the Non Rapid Eye Movement. This would be from bedtime until around midnight. So how do you distinguish if your child is experiencing a night terror? Well, your child will “wake” very suddenly, almost like a shock to the system, sit bolt upright and wide eyed. You may think they are actually awake because they look very alert and of course their eyes are open. However they are still asleep and in a very deep state of sleep. Your child may scream and it could be a very loud ear piercing scream. The scream may even scare you, and my experience of night terrors it sure scared me.

Then what may happen, well you child will probably get out of bed, start running around, start talking, almost in a fit of rage and seem like they are on a serious mission looking for something or perhaps nothing. They can be very forceful and if you are dealing with an older child here they can be very strong and physical, almost aggressive. They may be inconsolable cry loudly and look like they are terrified. Your child is in a super deep state of sleep. They are completely unaware of what they are doing. How long will each episode last? Research tell us about 10 minutes or so. How should you respond? It is vital you keep calm yourself and do not wake your child. If you wake them you will only frighten them more. You must calmly and gently guide your child back to their bed. Don’t force them. Don’t wake them. Just offer you love, support and comfort.

What causes' these night terrors?

Here I explain the reasons and some ways to prevent night terrors occurring,

  • Sleep Deprivation

This is the most common reason. Many of us do not know that our children are suffering on some sort of sleep debt and if your child is severely sleep deprived their body will have a greater drive to fall into that deep state of sleep (NREM)

  • Pre Emptive Stirring

This is when you wake your child ever so slightly, rousing them from a deep sleep, from one sleep cycle into another.

The best way to do this for preventing night terrors would be to start taking a diary of the times your child is waking with a night terror. You may see a pattern, for example at 10pm every night. It will most probably be in the earlier part of the night. Then once you have noticed a pattern you can rouse your child about 30 minutes before this time. Do this for 7 consecutive night for a week. The following week do it for 6 consecutive nights. The following week do it for 5 consecutive nights and so on…until you get to one night and potentially they may have ceased.

  • Ensure your child has regular naps appropriate for their age and stage of development and a consistent early bedtime every single day and night.

This will ensure your child’s circadian rhythm is set and regulates. This will co inside with ensuring they are getting the sleep they require.

  • Food

Some foods may trigger night terrors. Avoid caffeine and sugar fuelled foods such as sugary drinks and chocolate. This is a stimulant and will disturb peaceful sleep.

  • Stressful events and illness

Some of these events are for the most part unavoidable they can play havoc on anyone’s sleep and in children especially as they may not know how to comprehend or process the situation or know what or why it is happening. Events such as exams, divorce or moving house are possible reasons. It would be worthwhile trying some stress relieving tactics such as mindfulness or yoga before bedtime to help relax your child and “de-stress” preparing for a peaceful sleep. Don’t talk about anxious subjects in the lead up to bed time. Keep these conversations to earlier in the day.

Did you know your child has an 80-90% chance of experiencing night terrors if it runs in the family along with sleep talking and sleepwalking?

Seek professional medical advice if you are in any way concerned, if your child is experiencing many night terrors on a regular basis and or several times a night.

Peaceful Sleeping everyone...


Your Paediatric Sleep Consultant



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