Ask The Doctor:
Understanding Night Terrors...
Our five year old is having night terrors and my wife is really concerned that something is wrong. While of course her sleep disruptions are concerning, won't she just grow out of?
Night errors typically occur in children between 3-12 years of age and about 5-10% of children experience night terrors at some time, boys and girls are equally effected. Usually they resolve before adolescence.
Night terrors occur early in the night, about 60-90 minutes after the child falls asleep. A child experiencing a night terror usually will sit up in bed and scream, appearing awake but is confused and unresponsive to stimulus. The child my thrash around the bed and even get up and run about the room or house. Most episodes last 1-2 minutes but can last as long as 30 minutes before the child quickly relaxes and returns to normal sleep. Nightmares are scary dreams that occur during sleep, usually in the latter half of the night. Typically the child will remember the nightmare, whereas they will have no memory of the night terror.
The cause of night terrors is not clear, but it seems to be associated more with stress, illness, insufficient sleep or an erratic sleep schedule.
When your child is having a night terror it is best not to try to wake them. Attempts won't work and may only prolong the event. Just make sure the child doesn't hurt themselves with their thrashing. In the instances they run about, protect them from the windows.
Sometimes you may be able to temporarily prevent these events by waking the child about an hour after they go to sleep, or 15 minutes before the night terror usually begins. By doing this 2-3 nights in a row, the episodes will often stop for a while. In general you can help prevent them by establishing a good bedtime routine that is simple and relaxing and make sure they are getting enough rest.
Understanding night terrors can reduce your worry and help you both to get a good night's sleep. However if the night terrors occur repeatedly, talk to your doctor to be sure there is not something else going on or if a referral to a sleep specialist is needed.