Night Terrors in Children

Night terrors (also known as “sleep terrors” or “confusional arousals”) is one of a group of sleep disorders known technically as a “partial-arousal parasomnias”.

It is most common in children and can be a source of great distress to the parents as well as the child. Night or sleep terrors seem to grow less frequent with age, however many adults experience night terrors occasionally and a few suffer them frequently.

“Night Terrors” are superficially like very bad nightmares however they are in fact very different things. Some of the main distinguishing characteristics of night terrors are:

  • They often involve violent physical movement, sometimes screaming
  • The subject of the terror is almost totally forgotten on awakening
  • Night terrors usually occur early in the night, during the first couple of hours
  • Night terrors are sometimes associated with sleepwalking
  • Night terrors usually occur during the deepest NREM sleep whereas nightmares and bad dreams occur in REM sleep

Speaking personally I still occasionally suffer from night terrors despite being in my forties! I thrash around and cry out and on occasion have jumped out of bed in fear. I then wake up, often in a different room, with a strong feeling of anxiety but no idea at all what caused it or what I am afraid of.

What Causes Night Terrors?

Unfortunately no-one knows what causes night terrors. The condition seems to run in families, suggesting that it is genetically based. It is widely believed that the underlying cause of night terrors is physiological, not psychological.

There are many things – such as stress, disturbances to the sleep cycle, certain drugs – that can make a person more receptive to night terors. However they do not cause them. A person who does not have night terrors is unlikely to suddenly start to suffer just because of a little sleep deprivation. On the other hand, someone who already suffers from the condition could find it aggravated by missing just one night of sleep.

If you are genetically prone to night terrors then unfortunately there seems to be no way of curing the condition. The best that you can do is to try and avoid exacerbating the situation through excessive stress or disturbed sleep. Some people have reported that leaving a light on during sleep helps them.

If none of that works and night terrors are causing you problems then your doctor might be able to suggest some medication.

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