Sleep Terrors In Children – Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Parents want their children only the best. They want them to have a good life, to eat healthily, to be happy, and to sleep well.

So, when a child is troubled with bad dreams, parents have trouble dealing with it. The biggest issue here is that they actually don’t understand how and WHY do they dream so poorly.

Some often blame themselves for children’s bad dreams or severe nightmares. What parents tend to miss is the fact that children are often scared of the dark, being alone, and do have bad dreams from time to time.

That being said, a night terror in children is not rare. Did you know that night terror is actually more dramatic than nightmares? Night terrors might seem scary to a parent who witnesses them, but in most cases, they are not a sign of deeper medical issues.

Sleep Terrors In Children

Night terror in children usually involves screaming and smashing while asleep. Naturally, parents want to provide comfort and protect their children from whatever bothers them.

You probably want to put your child in a car and head to the pediatrician’s home in the middle of the night, for a quick check-up. However, this occurrence doesn’t work like that.

First, you need to understand what night terrors really are and what causes them. By many definitions, night terrors are not the same as a nightmare.

Nightmares in adults and children are the same – you wake up, and your nightmare is gone. Moreover, you still remember your nightmare the following day and you feel moody and exhausted. However, that’s not the case with night terrors.

Night terrors last from a few seconds to a few minutes, and although the children might sem traumatized, they will usually return to sleep normally after the terrors.

On top of that, they usually have no memory of the night terror the next morning.

Night terrors usually occur during the deepest stage of non-rapid eye movement sleep. They are also most common between midnight and 2 am, and there are multiple triggers for this vivid dream occurrence. So, what causes night terrors?

Sleep Terrors Causes

Triggers for sleep terrors may vary from person to person. However, there are some common triggers such as:

  • Stress
  • Lack of sleep
  • Fever
  • Change in sleep schedule

Interestingly, sleep terrors occur more in girls than boys, and most children grow out of them by the time they are teenagers.

Sleep terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep. As you probably know already, sleep happens in several stages. As mentioned earlier, sleep terrors occur during deep non-REM sleep.

Also, sleep terror is not technically a dream, but more a reaction of fear that happens during the transition from one stage to another.

Sleet terrors usually occur 2 or 3 hours after a child falls asleep when sleep goes from the deepest stage to lighter REM sleep.

This transition is usually easy, but sometimes it may be more difficult, and in those moments, a child can become more upset and frightened – and that reaction is a sleep terror.

Sleep terrors can also run in families. Most of the time, sleep terrors don’t have specific causes. However, certain things might play a big role, such as:

  • Depression
  • Too much caffeine
  • Sleeping in different places often, next to being away from home
  • Medications that can affect the brain
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Sleep apnea and other sleep issues

Sleep terrors are defined as a parasomnia.

Parasomnia is an undesirable experience or behavior during sleep. Sleep terrors always occur during N3 sleep, which is the deepest stage of non-rapid eye movement sleep or shortly NREM sleep. Sleepwalking is another NREM disorder.

Moreover, sleepwalking might appear together with sleep terrors. As expected, sleep terrors are more common if family members have a history of sleep terrors or a long history of sleepwalking.

As mentioned earlier, sleep terrors are more common in females.

Sleep Terrors Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of night terrors are as follows:

  • Suddenly sit upright in bed
  • Screaming in stress
  • Fast breathing
  • Quick heartbeat
  • Heavy sweating
  • Scared act

After only a few minutes, or sometimes even longer, the child will just go back to sleep. Children, just like adults, remember nightmares. However, they don’t remember night terrors.

So, if you ask them about their terrors the following day, they would have no memory of the previous night. Why is that? At the moment of sleep terrors appearance, children are in a deep sleep – therefore, they can’t have any memory of that.

Although children don’t remember sleep terrors, it doesn’t mean that there are no complications. Most common complications affected by sleep terrors are:

  • Excessive daytime sleepiness
  • Lack of productivity
  • Embarrassment about the sleep terrors
  • Injury to yourself or someone nearby

When To See a Doctor

Night terrors are not something that’s easy to witness. This is even more difficult when you have to witness something horrible in people that you love.

You should also bear in mind that sleep terrors are normal in children, and might appear from time to time. However, if sleep terrors become more frequent, you should visit the pediatrician’s office.

If your child is prone to sleepwalking, you should react even faster since with sleepwalking you can never know for sure if there will be some injuries or not.

Also, frequent sleep terrors can severely disturb sleep, which will lead to daytime fatigue. In students, it can even lead to poor academic performance.

As soon as you notice sleep terrors, talk with your pediatrician. Your pediatrician might suggest certain strategies.

One of the most common tactics is waking up the child at least 15 minutes before the time that the night terror typically occurs. Although meditation might be recommended to adults, this is not common practice for children.

Sleep Terrors Diagnosis

Your doctor will always ask about your medical history and symptoms. This is usually the first step when it comes to diagnosing sleep terrors. The evaluation may include:

  • Physical exam: this exam is mandatory to identify any conditions that might contribute to the sleep terrors.
  • Talking about your symptoms: it’s important to talk about sleep terrors because the right description can help set the diagnosis right. You should know about family medical history and any unusual condition. If an adult is suffering from sleep terrors, a sleeping partner might be asked to fill out a questionnaire about your sleep habits and behavior.
  • Polysomnography: this common practice to identify sleep problems is also known as a nocturnal sleep study, and it’s done in a very special way. Your doctor might ask you to spend a night in a sleep lab. Sensors are placed on the body to record and monitor brain waves, heart rate, breathing, oxygen level, and leg movement. This examination happens while you sleep. You may also be videotaped to document your behavior while you sleep.

Sleep Terrors Treatment

The most important thing that you should know about treatment is that there is no specific cure for this occurrence.

However, there are certain steps that you can take to prevent sleep terrors. That being said, a consistent bedtime schedule is mandatory, if you want to provide your child with a calm and healthy sleeping environment.

Having a bedtime routine might help if you include activities that might calm the children’s mind before sleep, such as light reading, a long bath, or a cup of nice tea that promotes sleep.

If your child does have an episode, always remain calm. Talk to your child in a calm and soft voice, while using gentle gestures such as a hand squeeze.

Often a hand can calm the person down, including a child. Never be aggressive, or try to force waking up your child.

Don’t shake your child, because it can only make things worse. It’s also fine to just wait for the terror episode to end. It’s never pleasant to watch this episode but remember – they are short and your child won’t remember it in the morning.

The Bottom Line

Sleep terrors are vivid episodes that can appear in any child, regardless of the age of any other factor.

Sleep terrors are not the same thing as nightmares, although people have a tendency to see them as equal. The truth is that sleep terrors may appear and disappear after only a few minutes.

Once they are gone, the child will return to sleeping and won’t remember anything the following day. That’s not the case with nightmares who tend to leave the person restless for the whole night, and disturbed the following day with vivid memories of the dream.

It’s crucial to understand that there is no one cure for this condition, but the focus should be on prevention.

So, set the right bedroom atmosphere, keep the light off, have a good sleeping schedule, next to bedtime routine and progress should be seen in a short period. If not, make sure that you contact your pediatrician as soon as you notice anything unusual.