Night Terrors Versus Nightmares

Parents sometimes confuse night terrors with nightmares, but the two experiences have little in common. Night terrors are rarer, occurring in about 5% of children under 6. The child screams and thrashes about, but rarely wakes up and does not remember the event when he awakens. Most night terrors are brief, lasting seconds or just minutes, but some can last as long as 30 minutes. Children may have several in a week or in a single night.

Some children look possessed, shriek, kick and are wild-eyed--but they are never in real distress. Parents who witness these episodes find them frightening but need not intervene. Other children go through night terrors grimacing, groaning or sitting up, usually without waking. Most parents slumber through these bouts, says Dr. Ronald E. Dahl, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at University of Pittsburgh Medical School and director of the pediatric sleep laboratory.

"What happens during a night terror is literally a battle between parts of the brain," Dahl says. "One part of the brain wants to stay in deep sleep and one part wants to move on to lighter sleep. So there is this fight. It's a lot like trying to wake up in the morning when you are overtired."

Dahl says night terrors are caused by lack of sleep and may be precipitated by anxiety. Soothing bedtime activities such as reading, singing songs and stroking your child's back might help. Turn down noise once children are in bed. If they are anxious about the dark, leave on a light.

If a child is awake after a night terror, don't interrogate her about what she experienced. She doesn't remember it, and seeing you anxious about it makes her apprehensive about going back to sleep. If the child doesn't wake up, most of the time it is best if you don't intervene. The child is too disoriented and unconscious to accept cuddling. For some children, gentle stroking and talking in a soft, calming voice reassures them even if they aren't awake.

Be sure your child's sleeping area is safe. The agitation of night terrors makes it dangerous for a child to bed down in a top bunk or near a window.

It may help to increase the amount of sleep your child is getting. Stretching out the sleep cycle makes the transition from deep sleep to light sleep easier.

Be concerned if your child has night terrors for several weeks. If they continue into adolescence, they may signify deeper problems.

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