Sleep Terrors or Nightmares?

Flickr photo

Flickr photo

Have you ever woken up to your child screaming or crying at night, appearing to be awake but unable to be consoled?  If so, your child may be experiencing night terrors (also known as sleep terrors), a condition in which the child is suddenly aroused from deep sleep and appears to be severely frightened. These episodes last from a few minutes up to 30, and can occur nightly. They are unique from nightmares in that the child is not fully awake, cannot be consoled and cannot remember the incident in the morning.

It is estimated that nearly 5-20% of children age 2-12 experience night terrors, though the actual number of children who suffer may be higher as the condition is often underreported by parents and under recognized by physicians. There are no proven causes of night terrors. Sleep apnea, a form of severe snoring that causes trouble breathing during sleep, can be a contributing factor in a small percentage of children, and a special type of seizure can also cause night terrors in very rare cases. Usually, though, there are no identified causes of night terrors.

So what should you do if your child has a night terror? The most important thing is to let the episode run its course. Do not try to wake your child up and do not try to calm her down. These actions may possibly extend the duration of the event. Just make sure your child is safe, and wait for her to return to sleep.

In most children, night terrors eventually subside and do not need to be treated. However, there are two treatment options physicians may recommend. The first is to increase the amount of sleep your child is getting. If this is not enough, medications such as benzodiazepines (Xanax, Klonopin, etc.) or tricyclic antidepressants may be prescribed, but these are only used in extreme cases. Usually, though, families simply have to wait for the night terrors to go away on their own.

It is important to know that night terrors are “benign” conditions; they do not have any harmful effects on the child. However, there is a very real effect for the parents of these children, who are often left with lingering concerns about the child’s wellbeing. In addition, many parents develop altered sleep habits themselves from many nights of waking up to be with their child. They may even worry that they are doing something wrong to cause the night terrors. These problems can have severe effects on parents’ quality of life and can make parents hesitant to bring up the issue of night terrors to friends or pediatricians.

Parents should know they have not done anything wrong to cause the night terrors and that there are millions of families going through the same thing. It is important to discuss the issue with your pediatrician if the episodes become bothersome.


Jay Dhuldhoya is a graduate researcher currently working with Dr. Christian Guilleminault and Dr. Andy Rink at Stanford University on research to improve children’s sleep. 





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One Response to “Sleep Terrors or Nightmares?”

  1. Sarah Pursell says:

    Our son had severe night terrors that luckily stopped within a week of beginning green smoothies and introducing the GAPS diet protocol. His eczema also went away. This was when he was 2 years 6 months. By physician reports he was healthy. We continued increasing GAPS foods and the screaming and crying we’d become accustomed to since his birth also decreased. He’s now 5, still on the GAPS diet, and sleeps well. I think his sleep issues were part of a much larger health issue and to say that sleep terrors are normal really misses an opportunity to help parents help their children.

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