Question: My toddler woke up screaming an hour or so after he fell asleep. He could not be comforted. It was very scary. Could this have been a night terror?
Answer: Night terrors are a common sleep problem among children. By some estimates, about 15 percent of younger children have occasional night terrors. Although most common in children between the ages of 2 and 6 years, they can occur at almost any age.
Usually considered to be a normal, they are often very scary and distressing to parents who witness them, especially during a child’s first night terror.
It is easy to see why parents find them distressing. Children who have night terrors are usually described as “bolting upright” with their eyes wide open, with a look of fear and panic, and letting out a “blood-curdling scream.”
These kids will usually also be sweating, breathing fast and have a rapid heart rate. Although it will seem like they are awake, during a night terror, children will appear confused, will not be consolable and won’t recognize you.
Typical night terrors last about five to 30 minutes, and afterwards children usually return to a regular sleep. If you are able to wake your child up during a night terror, he is likely to become scared and agitated, mostly because of your own reaction to the night terror, especially if you were shaking or yelling at him to wake up.
Instead of trying to wake up a child having a night terror, it is usually better to just make sure he is safe, comfort him if you can and help him return to sleep once it is over.
Night terrors are most often confused with nightmares, but unlike night terrors, a child having a nightmare is usually easily woken up and comforted. Children usually don’t recall having a night terror, as they do nightmares. Unlike nightmares, night terrors usually occur in the early part of the night.
The other worry for many parents is that these episodes are a type of seizure. Although different types of partial seizures, including temporal lobe and frontal lobe epilepsy, can appear similar to night terrors, they are usually brief (30 seconds to a few minutes) and are more common in older children and adults.
No treatment is usually necessary for routine night terrors. Since they are often triggered in children who are overtired, sticking to a good bedtime routine and making sure your child is getting enough rest can help to prevent them.
For children who get frequent night terrors, it might help to wake your child up before the time that he usually has a night terror. This is thought to interrupt or alter the sleep cycle and prevent night terrors from occurring (it also works for sleepwalking). Most children outgrow night terrors as they get older. Talk to your pediatrician if you have concerns about night terror during your child’s well check-up.
Submitted by Jocelyn Debick is the Children’s Services Associate Director at accessAbilities, Inc. She is a mother of three children, 17, 16 and 13.