Several years ago we were sleeping soundly when the most disconcerting sound woke us: the sound of our not-quite-three-year-old’s feet running down the hall in the middle of the night!
We had become used to the idea that once in the crib, she was there for the night unless we came in to get her. To suddenly have someone in the house running toward us screaming about something that sounded vaguely like ‘Spiders!’ was a new type of scary for us…especially when she awoke the next morning without any recollection of the 5 minutes of terror she (we?!) experienced.
Nightmares or something different?
Night terrors are different than nightmares. Typically, they affect children between the ages of 3-7 and may occur once or twice per month for some period of time. Night terrors can affect adults but are most common among boys age 5-7. They may run in families and episodes may last between 10-20 minutes.
Night terrors,or Pavor nocturnus as Latin speakers might say, are different than nightmares for two primary reasons:
- Night terrors occur in the transition between the 3rd and 4th stages of non-REM sleep….usually about 90 minutes after the child goes to sleep. Nightmares occur during REM sleep, which typically occurs much later in the sleep cycle.
- Unlike nightmares, children seldom remember night terror episodes.
Though our daughter’s episode was an isolated instance, friends have described similarly frightening intensity and disruption that night terrors can bring to a household on a more frequent basis.
Children experiencing night terrors often are unresponsive to comforting…it’s as if they are awake, and yet they are unresponsive and seemingly unaware of the parent’s presence. They may scream, thrash around and sit up with their eyes open or even sleepwalk (or run!)…and then, when it subsides, they fall back asleep…only to have no recollection of the events when they awake the next morning.
Causes and treatments
Several causes have been identified for sleep terrors inc children, including:
- stressful life events
- sleep deprivation
- certain medications.
Most children resolve their night terrors as they grow older. Medical treatments are rarely considered though it may be useful to have a pediatrician exclude other possible disorders that might cause night terrors. If a child experiences frequent instances (once or more per week), there are several steps parents can take at home to reduce or eliminate their occurence, including:
- Ensure a consistent bedtime routine
- Eliminate sources of noise or distrubance
- Wake your child up before the time they usually experience terrors to interrupt the cycle
- Minimize stress and help the child develop coping skills
The good news is that for most children, night terrors are an infrequent occurrence that passes quickly. If only it were less scary for their parents!
Do you have a story about night terrors? Feel free to share it in the comments.