Night Terrors And Children

Symptoms and causes of night terrors in children, as well as various preventative methods. Is it a nightmare or a night terror?

The BBC reports that 3% of children experience night terrors, most of whom are boys. Studies confirm that night terrors tend to run in families, as do other sleep disorders. These children that are afflicted with night terrors many times act like they are awake, but they are asleep. Night terrors are not nightmares. Nightmares occur during an early stage of sleep and night terrors occur in later stages of the sleep cycle. If your child has been exhibiting strange behavior and extreme fear upon awakening (they only appear awake), they are probably having a night terror.

Sleep disorders are a very common occurence in toddlers and young children, so parents should not be alarmed. Night terrors are a common in young children ages 3-5, especially boys. In rare cases, girls and adults can even experience night terrors, but the people usually effected have a strong biological predisposition for night terrors or other sleep disorders. Knowing the causes and signs will arm parents with the knowledge that they need in order to help their children have a restful night's sleep. Talking to the family physician or pediatrician will also shed some light on the problem, and offer some practical solutions.

What is a sleep disorder?

More than 100 different disorders of both sleeping and waking have been identified to date that are considered to be some sort of sleep disorder. A sleep disorder is a disruptive pattern of sleep that may make falling asleep difficult or staying asleep and falling asleep for any normal length of time problematic.

These disturbances sometimes are responsible for a patient falling asleep at inappropriate times or make a person sleep for an excessive time. Any abnormal sleep pattern or behaviors during sleep can constitute a sleep disorder. In extreme cases, persons with sleep disorders may be observed in a scientific setting or a sleep lab to determine the severity of their sleep disturbances. The patient will go to sleep while they are hooked up to various different pieces of equipment that measures brain activity and many different bodily functions during the sleep cycle.

Many times, sleep disorders are hereditary. Chances are; if your father, uncle, or brother has a sleep disorder, you may also have some type of sleep disturbance. If there is a family history, your child's pediatrician or your family physician should be notified.

What is a night terror?

In some cases, it is a distraught child who acts strangely. Often these children are terrified at some unseen stimuli. Sometimes these kids have a look of sheer terror. Other times they just act "weird" or are unresponsive and "out of it". A child may wander out of bed in the middle of night and be sitting on the floor in tears or possibly they are preoccupied with a toy, acting as if there is something scary about it. Any strange behavior on waking (or appeared wakening, since kids are asleep during a night terror) can be a night terror. If this is a regular occurrence or has happened a few times, parents should perhaps talk to their child's physician for clarification.

What causes night terrors?

An interruption in the normal sleep cycle causes night terrors. Since it is during stage-3 and stage-4 sleep that children experience these bouts of terror much differently than they do in a nightmare. Nightmares occur during earlier sleep stages, especially REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and children do not appear awake. There is a link between night terrors and stressful situations or lack of sleep. Problems at home or school can also be to blame.

In most cases, night terrors happen after a stressful event or a lack of sleep. In rare cases, some of these afflicted people experience years of disturbed sleep. While rare, some adults are plagued by night terrors and can even experience night terrors throughout their lives. In extreme cases of night terrors that occur regularly and for a prolonged time in adults, there could be psychological problems and/or the presence of extreme stress.

Know the signs

-Sudden bouts of apparent awakening (The child appears awake but is in deep sleep)

-Overwhelming fear, terror, or strange behavior occurring at night

-Rapid heart beat

-Screaming or crying



-No memory of the event

-Inability to fully awaken

-Irritable and difficult to sooth back to sleep

Is there any treatment available?

In most cases, the only thing that helps is comforting the child, reassuring them that there is nothing to fear. Developing a nightly bedtime ritual is also one of the most effective treatments for this disorder. Although therapy or psychological counseling may be an option in some extreme cases, this is rare. Benzodiazepine is a medication that has shown success in reducing night terrors in some of these severe cases. Medication is not necessary for the vast majority of children with night terrors. Some doctors report that the recommended dosage of Benadryl(diphenhydramine) given an hour or so before bedtime can reduce the occurrence of a night terror.

Most children will outgrow night terrors, so a little comfort goes a long way. Gentle touches from a reassuring parents are all that most children need to get through this frightening experience. If the night terrors are severe, cause injuries, or are a constant problem, your doctor may suggest an alternate treatment like therapy or administering a drug.

How can I prevent night terrors?

By keeping stress to a minimum and getting a good night's sleep on a regular basis, the severity and incidence of night terrors should be significantly reduced. Address all problems at school or at home, helping to relieve your child's stress. For added prevention, try instilling a regular routine for your child.

The Healthy Sleep Checklist

-Establish a regular routine and stick to it every night. Children, like all humans, are creatures of habit. A regular routine can make all the difference in kids with sleep disorders!

-The child should sleep in the same room every night, tucked into the same bed. If the parents share custody, they should cooperate with one another so that the child's sleeping routine is much the same.

-If possible, the child should have his or her room to keep disruptions to a minimum. If this is not a possibility, sometimes staggering sleep times help. Parents can try putting one child to sleep an hour before the other one. This way there is less activity and conversation just before sleep.

-The bedroom should be free from disruptive stimuli like a loud radio, a television, toy, or other loud noises.

-A warm bath just before bed is a relaxing and pleasant sleep-inducing addition to any child's daily or rather nightly routine.

-The bedroom should be dimly lit. A night light is ok, but try to make the room dimly lit, comfortable, and conducive to getting a good night's sleep.

-To insure a good night's sleep, be sure to keep snacks to a minimum in the hour or so proceeding bedtime. Sugary snacks or soda pop could "rev" a child up. It is also a good idea to limit physical activity during that hour before bedtime too.

-Read your child a pleasant, happy story at bedtime or sing a few soft lullabies. Refrain from scary tales.

-Just like grandma used to say, warm milk at night really can help a person get a good night's sleep, but this drink should be given an hour before bedtime. In children whom are allergic to mild, warm milk before bed is NOT recommended of course.

-If your child has a recurring problem and your doctor says that it is ok, you may want to give your child a dose of Benadryl before bedtime on nights when he or she has had an unusually active or stressful day.

What can I do if my child has trouble falling asleep?

If the parent follows the advice above on the healthy sleep checklist, the child's sleep disturbances should be minimized. But if the child is having trouble falling asleep, perhaps a few tips for insomniacs could help. Here is some common sense advice that both doctors and grandmas have been giving for many years.

Tips for Insomnia in Children

1. A strict bedtime and waking time will help a child to fall asleep faster.

2. Expose the child to 30 minutes of bright light soon after awaking.

3. Dim the lights 1-2 hours before bedtime.

4. If your child is having trouble falling asleep, avoid naps.

5. Avoid reading and watching TV in bed.

6. Avoid soda pop, chocolate, and other snacks that may stimulate the child.

7. Do not offer heavy liquids like milkshakes or a big meal right before bedtime.

8. Avoid physical exertion for 2-3 hours before bedtime.

Hopefully this information will help your child. Perhaps tonight will bring your child a good night's rest full of pleasant dreams. Good luck and good night!




Web MD

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