It’s 9 p.m. and you’re just about to watch one more episode before hitting the sack…when you hear an ear-piercing scream coming from your kid’s bedroom. You rush in to see your little guy’s eyes wide open, but he’s totally confused. Don’t panic—here’s what you need to know about night terrors, including why they happen and what you can do to help.
What is a night terror? Typically occurring during the first few hours of the night (during the transition to deep sleep), night terrors are a type of sleep disorder that can be pretty upsetting to watch. “During a night terror, the child is difficult to comfort,” explains Shelby Harris, PsyD, director of behavioral sleep medicine at Montefiore Health System in NYC. “She may sit straight up, talk, let out a loud cry or blood curdling scream, and may even move or walk around.” And although it may look like your kid is awake, they’re actually fast asleep and will have trouble remembering the event the next day. Meaning that the night terror is actually more terrifying for you than it is for your kid. Phew.
What’s the difference between a night terror and a nightmare? While night terrors occur in the first third of the night, nightmares generally occur in REM sleep (i.e., during the latter third of the night). And when a child has a nightmare, she can usually recall details of the dream when awakened and be comforted.
Why does this happen? The cause of night terrors is unclear, but they can be triggered by high fevers, stress or sleep deprivation. There may also be a genetic component. “Night terrors are most common in younger school-age children but can last into adolescence,” says Harris. And approximately 25 percent of children will experience night terrors and/or nightmares at some point. (But don’t worry; the majority of kids grow out of it.)
So what can parents do? Minimize the chances of a night terror occurring by keeping sleep deprivation on lockdown (that means sticking to a routine and limiting sugary foods and caffeine near bedtime). During a night terror, stay calm and don’t try to shake or wake up your child. “It may be tempting to talk to your child during the night terror but it’s actually better not to engage in conversation or awaken them, as this may lengthen the event in the moment. Also, since the child likely doesn't have any recollection of a night terror (as opposed to a nightmare), it’s best to not dwell on it the next day,” advises Harris. Instead, make sure that their sleep environment is safe and wait with them for the night terror to pass.
Should I be concerned? Night terrors are generally nothing for parents to worry about, says Harris. “Parents should not to be concerned about their child’s nightmares or night terrors unless they occur frequently, or cause injury or significant sleep deprivation.” If that’s the case, then seek help from a sleep specialist.