Night terrors in children: definition, causes, symptoms, treatment & advice for parents

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Most parents will be woken up at least once in their child’s life to their little one screaming or crying after having a bad dream. But what’s the difference between nightmares and night terrors? And what can parents do about them?

Nightmares in children

Nightmares are especially prevalent in children between the ages of two and three, as their imagination runs wild. Children want to be comforted during this time and even though it might take them a bit of time to let go of the scary thoughts and fall back asleep, they will be comforted by the presence of a parent.

Nightmares are scary dreams and can be triggered by movies, videos, books or even stories. These bad dreams can also occur during times of change or trauma. Nightmares are usually infrequent, but it is advisable to seek assistance from a play therapist if they do become more frequent.

What are night terrors in children?

The definition of night terrors, according to WebMD, is “episodes of intense screaming, crying, thrashing, or fear during sleep that happen again and again, usually in children ages 3 to 12. New cases peak at age of 3 and a half”.

When compared to nightmares, night terrors are quite a different experience for both the child and the parents. Unlike nightmares, night terrors happen in NON-REM sleep and although they can occur at any time during the night, they typically occur between 3 am and 5 am.

Most commonly, night terrors occur when the child is between three and eight years of age, but there have been cases reported where children as young as 18 months old also experience night terrors. These happen more frequently at night and occur more regularly over a specified time.

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Are night terrors in children dangerous?

Night terrors in children aren’t dangerous but can be quite unsettling for the parents and occasionally impact a child’s ability to keep up with their regular daily routine. Luckily, most children will outgrow night terrors by the time they are in their teens.

Parents can be quite alarmed by a night terror as their child can appear quite anxious and could scream for between five and 15 minutes, and the presence of the parent will not comfort the child or, even worse, it could frighten their child. These night terrors are generally more upsetting for parents than for the child, as children cannot remember them.

Signs and symptoms of night terrors

  • They may thrash around in bed or sit up
  • Scream or cry
  • They can appear to be awake
  • Not responsive to a parent comforting them
  • They may sweat, breathe fast and have a fast heart rate

Causes of night terrors in children

The exact cause of night terrors is unknown, but they tend to run in families and are more common in boys than girls. The most common cause of night terrors in children is thought to be sleep deprivation or lack of sleep. Other possible causes include:

  • Fever or illness
  • Sleeping in an unfamiliar place
  • Stress or depression
  • Certain medications

How to deal with night terrors: advice for parents

  • First, make sure that when a night terror occurs, your child is safe. There is no need to try to calm your child; just be there and wait it out. Trying to contain them could prolong the night terror.
  • Do not speak or ask them about it the next day. This can make them afraid and worry as they are not even aware it is happening.
  • Implement a set bedtime routine that is not too long (around 30 minutes) and not too late. Children up to the age of five years need between 11 and 12 hours of solid sleep at night, thus bedtime should be around 7pm. A child older than five years can enjoy bedtime at around 7:30pm.
  • Avoid screen time for at least two hours before bedtime. As such, children should never be allowed to fall asleep in front of the TV.

Night terrors can be scary but are rarely something of concern. Implementing better sleep routines and ensuring your child gets the rest that is needed can improve their sleep quality and lessen the occurrence of night terrors.

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