Night Terrors vs. Nightmares: Symptoms, Causes & More

The first time you see your child have a night terror can be very scary. I remember when my eldest son had one. He was screaming and flailing and there was nothing I could do to calm him down. The good news is that while night terrors are dramatic and upsetting, they do not affect children’s sleep quality and they won’t last forever. Keep reading for everything you need to know about night terrors, including what causes them, symptoms, and how they’re treated.

What are night terrors?

A night terror is an episode where a child wakes up suddenly from sleep at night and acts extremely upset. Symptoms include:

  • Screaming
  • Flailing of the arms and legs
  • Sweating
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Inability for child to calm down

How long does an episode of night terrors typically last?

Night terrors occur when a child is in a deep sleep and can last from 5 to 20 minutes. Your child will have no memory of the event the following morning (though you may feel traumatized). 

How often do night terrors happen?

Night terrors are relatively rare. It is estimated that night terrors occur in about 3 to 6 percent of children. Typically, night terrors occur in children ages 3 to 12 but have been reported in kids as young as 18-months-old. They can occur in adults as well. There is a strong genetic link, so if mom or dad have had night terrors as a child it is more likely that their kids will have them.

How are night terrors different from nightmares?

When a child wakes up from a nightmare he can articulate having a frightening dream. Nightmares occur during REM sleep (rapid eye movement), which is lighter sleep. A night terror, on the other hand, is not a dream, and occurs during deep sleep. A child will have no memory of a night terror after it occurs.

Are there times when my child may be more likely to have night terrors?

Yes. Children who are sleep deprived or sick are more likely to have night terrors. In addition, times of stress or family change can worsen the frequency of night terrors. It is important to have a consistent bedtime and bedtime routine. Avoid high stimulus activities, like running around outside, and screen time (that includes the tablet and Smartphone!) before bedtime as well.

What should I do during these episodes?

If your child is having a night terror, you should stay with her until the episode stops and make sure she is safe. Do not try to wake her up. Once the episode is over, your child will go back to sleep. Attempts to wake the child usually don’t work, and kids who do wake are likely to be disoriented and confused, and they may take longer to settle down and go back to sleep.

Are there any treatments for night terrors?

No. In time, your child’s night terrors will go away naturally.

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