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Night Terrors – What Are They and What To Do

About once a week, a parent comes into the office and asks me about a scary phenomenon:  their child has been waking up at night, frightened and unable to be consoled or comforted.  These are called night terrors, (also called sleep terrors or pavor nocturnus) and can be very worrisome for parents.  The child seemingly awakens from sleep in a panic, sometimes screaming or crying and cannot be calmed down.  The child might appear confused and might not recognize the parent.  In actuality, the child is still asleep.

Night terrors are a disorder of arousal, similar to sleepwalking and sleep talking.  They can be inherited and can occur in up to 5% of children.  They can happen at any age, but are most common from 1-8 years old.  Most children outgrow them.  Sometimes they are brief, and sometimes they can last as long as 30 minutes.  They differ from nightmares in that Night Terrors usually occur in the early part of the night, the first 4 hours.  Also, a child can usually recall what scared him in his nightmare, while a child usually has no memory of having a night terror.

Your pediatrician will be able to recognize simple night terrors versus something that needs further intervention. Night terrors are harmless and therefore no treatment is usually necessary.  They are often triggered in children who are overtired, so making sure your child gets enough sleep can help to prevent them.  Your goal during a terror is to try to get your child to return to normal sleep by trying to soothe or comfort him, but most importantly, protecting them from injury as they might flail in bed, fall down a stairwell, or run into a wall.  Also, make sure to alert and educate babysitters of your child’s possible sleep disturbance.

There has been some success to halting night terrors if parents wake their child up before the usual time of occurrence, thus altering the child’s sleep patterns.  This has to be repeated for a week. 

This topic has personal significance for me, as my 3 year old daughter has been having night terrors for over a year.  They do seem to be more frequent when she has not been getting adequate sleep.  They are more of a nuisance than anything else, as she wakes the household up during a terror.  And, even though we might get rid of her night terrors by altering her sleep patterns, I am sure I speak for a lot of parents when I say that the last thing I would ever do is wake up my daughter once I finally got her to sleep!

All information given is not a substitute for the advice of your pediatrician, primary care provider or trained health professional.  Always consult with your pediatrician or health care professional.

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