Night terrors are an inherited disorder in which a child tends to have dreams during deep sleep from which it is difficult to awaken. They occur in 2% of children and usually are not caused by psychological stress. Getting overtired can trigger night terrors. Night terrors usually occur in children 1 to 8 years old.
A night terror usually begins 1 to 2 hours after going to sleep and lasts from 10 to 30 minutes. During a night terror, your child may:
In the morning, your child cannot remember what happened.
Night terrors usually occur within 2 hours of bedtime. Night terrors are harmless and each episode will end of its own accord in deep sleep. The problem usually disappears by age 12 or sooner.
Your goal is to help your child go from agitated sleep to a calm sleep. You won't be able to awaken your child, so don't try to. Turn on the lights so that your child is less confused by shadows. Make soothing comments such as, "You are all right. You are home in your own bed. You can rest now." Speak calmly and repetitively. Such comments are usually better than silence and may help your child refocus. Some children like to have their hand held during this time, but most will pull away. Hold your child only if it seems to help your child feel better.
There is no way to abruptly shorten the episode. Shaking or shouting at your child will just cause the child to become more agitated and will prolong the attack.
During a night terror, a child can fall down a stairway, run into a wall, or break a window. Try to gently direct your child back to bed.
Explain to people who care for your child what a night terror is and what to do if one happens. Understanding this will prevent them from overreacting if your child has a night terror.
Sleep deprivation is the most common trigger for night terrors. For preschoolers, restore the afternoon nap. If your child refuses the nap, encourage a one-hour "quiet time." Also avoid late bedtimes because they may trigger a night terror. If your child needs to be awakened in the morning, that means he needs an earlier bedtime. Move lights out time to 15 minutes earlier each night until your child can self-awaken in the morning.
If your child has frequent night terrors and is over 6 years old, you can try using a method of waking your child up at night before the night terror occurs. This method helps eliminate the problem in about 90% of children. For several nights, note how many minutes elapse from the time your child falls asleep to the onset of the night terror. Then begin awakening your child every night 15 minutes before the expected time of the night terror. Remind your child to "wake up fast." Keep your child fully awake and out of bed for 5 minutes. Continue these prompted awakenings for 7 nights in a row. If the night terrors return when you stop awakening your child, repeat this seven-night training program.
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