If you are a parent or have ever cared for children, you know how great it feels to finally get a little one to sleep. Whether the task requires endless rocking and a ninja-like exit from the room or a simple kiss and warm wishes for sweet dreams, there is no feeling of success like the one when your child is finally asleep and the night is yours.
However, a variety of things can wake small children once they are asleep — and night terrors are among those sleep challenges. Usually more upsetting for parents than for children, night terrors most often affect toddlers and preschool-age children during their deepest sleep.
“Nightmares and night terrors are under the group of disorders called parasomnias, but are very different,” says Dr. Gary Levinson, a board-certified internal medicine doctor with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group and sleep expert at Sharp Memorial Hospital. “Nightmares occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, generally in the early hours of the morning. Night terrors occur during non-REM sleep in the first two to three hours of the sleep period.”
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), common behaviors during night terrors, which can last up to 45 minutes but are usually much shorter, include the following:
- Uncontrollable crying
- Sweating, shaking and fast breathing
- Terrified, confused and glassy-eyed look
- Thrashing, screaming and kicking
- Not recognizing you or realizing your presence
- Pushing you away
Unlike nightmares, which are vivid dreams that will wake your child from sleep, children usually don't truly awaken during night terrors, though they may appear to be awake.
“Nightmares are dreams that become increasingly more disturbing as they unfold and awaken the child,” says Dr. Levinson. “Full alertness returns immediately upon awakening after a nightmare and the child will recall the dream. On the other hand, during a night terror, a child may abruptly scream and appear agitated and anxious. He or she may jump out of bed as if running away from an unseen threat and could be unresponsive to parental efforts at calming.”
The AAP and Dr. Levinson encourage you to stay calm during your child’s night terrors and don’t try to wake the child.
“Parents need to be reassured about the benign nature of night terrors,” says Dr. Levinson. “The child cannot be comforted during these events, they cannot be woken up and they usually have no memory of the problem.”
He says that night terrors are not usually an indication that a child has other medical or psychological problems. They may, however, be exacerbated by sleep deprivation, so give your children adequate time to nap during the day.
The AAP recommends that you go to your children during night terrors to make sure they cannot hurt themselves and gently restrain them if they try to get out of bed. You should also tell babysitters or other caregivers about the potential for night terrors so that they know how to react appropriately if night terrors occur during their watch.
Dr. Levinson encourages parents to talk to their child’s doctor if they have concerns about their child’s quality of sleep or sleep habits. Sleep problems are common in young children and are usually resolved as they mature.
“Infrequent night terrors — one or two times a month — do not need to be treated,” says Dr. Levinson. “Symptoms will usually resolve spontaneously over one to two years, and night terrors are rare after the age of 12.”