Updated: Aug 2
Night terrors can be alarming for both the child and the parents. Instinct will have any parent running in to settle their child, but is that the best way to handle it? I'll answer that question, along with others, in this post.
Night Terrors vs. Nightmares
First of all, it's important to recognize the difference between night terrors and nightmares. Night terrors are much more rare than nightmares. Most kids will have a nightmare or two at some point, but only a small percentage of children have night terrors. You should handle them differently, so you've got to know which you're dealing with. Here are some quick facts to help you figure out which one your child is having:
You can usually offer comfort to settle a child experiencing a nightmare, while a child having a night terror may be inconsolable until it's over.
A child doesn't have any recollection of a night terror, but they can usually recall and even retell a nightmare.
Nightmares can be caused by identifiable fears such as monsters, dragons, or the Easter bunny, or a specific event, like being bullied or getting hurt. Night terrors are unrelated to specific things or events.
Night terrors can cause a child to: scream, thrash around, sweat, have a faster heartbeat, and act scared or in distress.
Night terrors often happen after 2-3 hours of going to bed, whereas a nightmare can happen at any time while sleeping.
If you think your child is experiencing nightmares instead of night terrors, I've got another post on that for you! Crazy Character Nightmares
The Cause of Night Terrors
We sleep in cycles. When one cycle is over, an independent sleeper will just transition into another cycle or wake up, roll over, and go right back to sleep. Night terrors usually happen in the midst of this transition between sleep cycles. Sometimes a child gets scared or upset and the reaction results in a night terror. The child is not aware of this whole process happening.
The most common causes of night terrors I see are being overtired and/or increased stress. When a child is overtired, it can keep him from smoothly transitioning sleep cycles. This may cause night terrors as well as more frequent wakings in general. Factors like big life changes (moving, divorce, death) or being in a new environment can cause increased stress on a child. This stress causes his central nervous system to be in overdrive during sleep, which in turn keeps him from connecting sleep cycles easily.
How to Help through a Night Terror
Night terrors are scarier for the parents than they are for the child. The child usually has no recollection of it and isn't even aware during it. Your instinct may be to wake your child up to help him, however it's best not to wake him. In the midst of a night terror, you should be nearby to make sure he isn't getting hurt, but otherwise just wait it out. Waking him could cause more confusion and distress. Children will usually settle down and return back to sleep within a few minutes.
There are some things you can do to avoid night terrors or help get rid of them if they keep happening. As I mentioned above, they can be caused by being overtired or stressed. In the case of over-tiredness, a schedule change could help by making sure your child is getting enough sleep. If you suspect stress, try getting to the bottom of it and helping him work through it. In extreme cases, a counselor may be effective in helping your child handle the stress.
Having a good bedtime routine can also help reduce any stress at bedtime and help your child prepare for sleep. It's also a good idea to stop screen use an hour before bedtime to give your child's body a chance to wind down. Lastly, watch your child's sugar intake. The amount of sugar we eat can greatly impact quality of sleep. Check out The Effect of Sugar on Sleep for more information.
Night terrors are hard to watch, but they are usually harmless and end quickly. Be there for your child, but wait through it and they'll be back to sleep in no time.
~Ashley Bell, your pediatric sleep consultant