What is a Night Terror?

What is a night terror? We have all been there as a parent when our child wakes up screaming and confused, but Night terrors and nightmares are notoriously confused between one another. Surprisingly they are different! Knowing the difference between the two sleep episodes can help you respond to the child in the correct manner. Let’s first define what “sleep terror” is and how we can be prepared to help.

what is a night terror?

What is a night terror?

A sleep terror is actually NOT a bad dream. It is named a sleep terror because it is terrifying for the parents, not the child. The child will have no recollection of the terror in the morning because they are still sleeping. Read below.

A night terror can look like:

  • A child waking up screaming
  • Talking nonsense
  • Scared
  • Non-responsive
  • Sleep walking
  • Violent episodes
  • Dream like trance

This is caused by the child being stuck in between two sleep cycles, REM going into Deep sleep. One of the sure ways to know if it is a terror versus a nightmare is their memory. If you ask them about the episode in the morning and they have no idea what you are talking about, it was a Night terror. Another sure sign of a sleep terror is if they seem awake but do not respond to you in any way. As I stated above they are actually still asleep, even though they seem awake.

What to do during a night terror?

The best thing you can do is make sure the child is safe. If they are flailing, violent, or walking around:

  1. Guide them to a safe place or back to their bedroom.
  2. Try to coax them back into bed and sit with them.
  3. Do not try to wake them up. Waking them up might actually scare them and cause more harm.

Usually the child will lay back down and go back to sleep on their own when the terror is over like nothing even happened. Remember they are still sleeping and completely unaware of you in the room.

An example for you. My daughter was three years old and woke me up screaming. I ran into her room and saw her pulling and her covers, flailing, looking like she was trying to get something off of her. I sat down on her bed and grabbed her hands and told her “I’m here! I’m here!”. She didn’t respond at all. I tried to ask her a question, but no response. One of the things I noticed the most was she would not make eye contact, or even look in my direction. I gently guided her to lay back down and she immediately fell back to sleep.

Why do night terrors happen?

Doctors and researchers do not know why sleep terrors happen, but here are some known symptoms to trigger an episode.

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Overtired
  • Stress
  • Change in routine or sleeping somewhere new
  • Overfull bladder
  • Fever

What can you do to prevent night terrors?

If your child has a sleep terror once in a blue moon I would not stress about this. For all of my sleep programs I recommend an early bedtime depending on the child’s age to prevent overtiredness. Early bedtimes can really cure a lot of troubles. The child will not be overtired and be able to get great quality sleep for the night. When a child goes to bed overtired they have a hard time getting into Deep and REM sleep for long periods of time and this can cause problems. Read all about sleep deprivation in children here.

If you experience night terrors more often than not, you can try an early bedtime, and I would also reach out to your doctor. A sleep terror that happens often could be a sign of something deeper going on with your child. Talk to a doctor to get to the root cause of the problem. 

Want more resources?

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