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The difference between normal nightmares and night terrors is that your child may scream, thrash around, or even sit up in bed or jump out of bed with their eyes open when they are experiencing night terrors. Although your child may look awake, he or she may not even recognize you when you try to provide comfort. The most worrying thing about night terrors is that children often look absolutely terrified when they are in the middle of them, and there doesn't seem to be much you can do to help as they aren't really aware that you are there. Another difference between night terrors and nightmares is that most children who have night terrors won't remember anything about them when they do wake up. A child who wakes up from a nightmare will often remember what the dream was about, and they will usually be able to recall what happened the next day. A child who has night terrors won't usually be aware that anything strange happened while they were sleeping.
Night terrors can last for up to about 15 minutes and they can happen several times during the night. Most children experience night terrors during the earlier part of the night, as it usually happens before they have started dreaming.
Night terrors happen when a child wakes up suddenly in the middle of one of the deepest periods of sleep. During this deep sleep, your child isn't dreaming, so they aren't being woken up by a bad nightmare. Children who have a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking may be more likely to experience these kinds of problems themselves. Certain factors that affect your child's sleep can also trigger an attack of night terrors. Night terrors are more likely to happen when your child is ill with a fever or is particularly tired, as this can result in a longer period of deep, dreamless sleep. Anything that makes your child more likely to wake up from this deep sleep can also increase the chances of having night terrors. Potential issues could include feeling more anxious or excited than usual, sudden noises or disturbances, or simply having a full bladder that is making sleep uncomfortable.
Having the occasional nightmare is normal, but if your child is experiencing night terrors it can be a very frightening experience for you or for any sibling who are in the same bedroom. Thankfully, most children who have night terrors seem to remember very little about them when they wake up. However, if your child is experiencing night terrors several times a night, they are being disturbed most nights, or the problem has gone on for a long time, it might be a good idea to seek advice from a doctor. It is also worth seeing a specialist doctor if any kind of sleep problem is having a negative impact on your child, such as making them anxious, affecting their concentration at school, or leaving them feeling tired and irritable.
Seeing a doctor can reveal whether there are any underlying problems that might be causing your child to wake up at the wrong time. For example, problems such as sleep apnoea that affect your child's breathing could be waking them up during deep sleep, resulting in night terrors. At the very least, the doctor will be able to rule out any medical or physical issues that could be affecting your child's sleep.
Talking to a doctor who is a sleep specialist can also help you to come up with an effective strategy for preventing night terrors. Creating a peaceful sleeping environment can help, as can addressing any worries that might be waking your child up at night. If the episodes usually occur at the same time each night, it can help to wake them up about 15 minutes before this, every night for about a week. This can change their sleep pattern enough to prevent the episodes.
The most important thing to remember about night terrors is that they are more frightening for you than they are for your child. Most children won't even be aware that they are having them. The best thing you can do during a night terror is to stay calm and wait for it to pass. Don't try to intervene or wake your child up, unless you have to in order to protect them. For example, you may need to stop a child from sleep walking if there is a risk that he or she could fall down the stairs. Your child probably won't recognize you in the middle of an episode, so they could actually become more agitated even if you are trying to comfort them.