Guest Post About Night Terrors

I have a special treat for you today – Michelle Gordon, a writer for has generously offered us an article she has written about Night Terrors.  I hope you enjoy!

Night Terrors

You hear your child wake, screaming and crying in her bedroom. She sounds so overwrought that you come running, but she doesn’t seem to hear you when you speak to her. Her eyes are open, she’s sweating, her heart is pounding, and she looks absolutely terrified – but she breaks away when you try to calm her and doesn’t even seem to recognize you.

Suddenly it’s over. Without any real help from you, she calms and snuggles down into bed by herself, suddenly asleep again. As you stumble back to bed, your mind races. What just happened?

Night Terrors

These episodes are called night terrors or sleep terrors. Both kids and adults can have night terrors, but they’re more common in children. Kids may sleepwalk, scream, cry, or even talk during a sleep terror, but they won’t respond to their parents or loved ones the way they would in the waking world.

Night Terrors and Dreaming

Night terrors aren’t true dreams. According to sleep researchers Carlos Simon Guzman and Yuan Pang Wang of the Institute of Psychiatry at Universidade de São Paulo in Brazil, “arousal parasomnias” like night terrors and sleep walking most commonly occur during periods of partial arousal from delta sleep, or Stage 4 sleep.

Children spend more time in delta wave sleep than grownups, and night terrors most often happen early in the night, when periods of delta sleep are longest. Night terrors can also sometimes happen in very young children, whose neurological systems aren’t fully matured, as they transition from deep REM sleep (where they dream) to light REM sleep (where there are no visual dreams).

Delta sleep is a deep sleep stage, but it’s not deep REM sleep, where dreams occur. In deep REM sleep, the brain literally disconnects muscle control so that we don’t act out our dreams. A person in delta sleep doesn’t “see” or experience events as they would in dreams – in fact, both kids and adults who have night terrors will wake up in the morning with no memory of the episode at all. In other words, you’re probably more traumatized by the whole thing than your little one.

Reasons for Night Terrors

The most common explanation for night terrors is that the central nervous system, or CNS, is somehow overstimulated during sleep, according to KidsHealth. Stimulation, either left over from a dream, in response to the pressure of a full bladder, or due to partial awakening for some other reason, can cause a rush of adrenaline in the hyper-stimulated CNS and trigger an inappropriate “fight or flight” response. So the flailing little one in front of you is exhibiting the chemical effects of fear – but she’s not responding to any kind of mental imagery from a dream, and she’s still too deeply asleep to know that you’re there and trying to wake her.

Research published in 2003 in the journal Pediatrics by Gulleminault et al. found that more than half of kids who suffer from parasomnias like night terrors have another sleep-related disorder like restless legs syndrome or, most commonly, sleep disordered breathing (or SBD). Treating the other sleep disorder resulted in alleviation of night terrors in most cases, so the partial arousals caused by another sleep disorder are one cause of night terrors.

Who has Night Terrors?

Night terrors happen to both boys and girls, usually between the ages of four and twelve years. Occasionally, younger children are reported to have these issues. Reports may be lower in toddlers and babies since nighttime awakenings on the whole are more common in the youngest children.

Most children grow out of night terrors on their own as the nervous system matures. Some adults do suffer from night terrors, and in these cases the problem might stem from childhood or present for the first time after a traumatic event later in life. Night terrors in adults are associated with a higher instance of psychological disorder, so see a specialist if you’re experiencing night terrors as an adult for any significant length of time.

Night terrors in young children, “tweens,” and even young teens are usually no cause for alarm. They are most often a side effect of a normally developing CNS, rather than an indicator of psychological problems. Still, if your child has these partial awakenings nightly or if the episodes are severe enough that he could be injured, visit a pediatric therapist or a sleep specialist. The underlying cause may be as simple as a related, and easily fixed, sleep problem.

Helping a Child Through Sleep Terrors

A parent’s first instinct is to hug or rock a child in the throes of a night terror, but this response can actually make things worse. Remember, your child is still in a deep state of sleep and doesn’t consciously hear you or recognize you – so a hug can feel like a restraint, further arousing them from sleep and exacerbating the chemical fear response your child is feeling. A child who is woken from a sleep terror may have trouble calming down due to the “fight-or-flight” feeling produced by adrenaline; it’s far easier on both adult and child if the child passes through this bumpy transition without waking fully.

Don’t try to wake a child who is in the middle of a night terror. Watch to minimize the chances of injury, let the child settle down on his own, and tuck him in as he drifts off to deeper sleep again. In some cases, if the episode doesn’t resolve itself in a minute or two, walking your child to the bathroom to relieve himself may make the difference.

Remember, if it’s a night terror and not a bad dream, your little one will have no memory of the event in the morning. Since little brains and bodies don’t remember night terrors, there’s no danger of lasting damage to a child’s psychology or emotional development. Parasomnias really can be harder on the parent than the child.

Need to Know:

  • Night terrors in children aren’t a sign of psychological or behavioral problems.
  • Night terrors happen when a child transitions between deep sleep stages or is partially aroused from sleep. It’s a natural, if unfortunate, part of the maturing central nervous system for a small percentage of children.
  • Night terrors can sometimes be caused by a related sleep disorder, so if the problem is severe or long lasting, talk to a sleep specialist.

Nice To Know

  • Your child isn’t having a bad dream – in fact, he or she probably won’t remember the event at all when the sun comes up.
  • Night terrors usually resolve on their own over time. Even adults who experience night terrors after a traumatic incident usually find the episodes stop after they’ve had time to think about and process the event.

Michelle Gordon has been a lifelong student of sleep and sleep disorders. She enjoys speaking to others (in groups and individually) about how to enhance the sleep experience. She writes for, the definitive guide for latex mattresses.

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