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Calming Parent’s Fears About Night Terrors

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

I received an e-mail from a listener today about night terrors. Her concern was “my son is having what I think are nightmares, but he talks and makes no sense and seems to be afraid and I am not sure what is going on.”

Her description is perfect for night terrors, which typically occur in children during the pre-school and early elementary years. The peak age is between five and seven years, and night terrors usually resolve before adolescence. About three percent of children experience night terrors.

Night terrors are part of sleep disturbances known as parasomnias, and are characterized by partial arousal during non-REM sleep. Night terrors therefore typically occur during a child’s early hours of sleep, when non-REM sleep is deepest.

Most children with night terrors will stay in their bed, but cry out and appear anxious and upset, but are also very confused. Some children may run down the hallway with heart racing and breathing fast as if they are being chased.

Until you see a child having a night terror it is difficult to explain how anxiety provoking it is for a parent who doesn’t realize what is going on. I speak from experience as our third child had classic night terrors, but the first time he appeared in a “semi” awake state screaming and sweating, I would have sworn he was in horrible pain.

Not the case, as after about two to five minutes most children will calm down (on their own as you cannot awaken them or comfort them during the event) and return to sleep and have no recollection of the episode the following morning. It is a very helpless feeling until you realize that your child is really not awake at all.

The other big difference between night terrors and nightmares is that the child has no sense of dread or of being scared to sleep. They have no fear or anxiety about these events occurring, and while the sleep terror ends abruptly with rapid return to deep sleep there is complete amnesia to the event.

The best treatment is in reassuring parents. It is also important to make sure that your child has a regular bedtime routine and that they are getting sufficient sleep. This sleep disturbance is really more disturbing to the family than the child and will resolve over time. Just remember to let babysitters know, as it may be quite unsettling for a new sitter who has just put precious children to bed!

That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again tomorrow.

Send your question to Dr. Sue right now!

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