Night Terrors and Nightmares
General Description of Night Terrors
Night terrors (also called sleep terrors) are periods of extreme agitation with manifestations of intense fear, crying and screaming in the middle of the night. The difference between night terrors and a nightmare is that night terrors usually occur just a few hours after falling asleep. A nightmare tends to occur towards the end of the night or early morning, and will be remembered.
When a child has a night terror, arousal can be difficult. He or she might have their eyes open but will look straight through you, similar to someone sleepwalking. The child is not dreaming, but in a deep sleep. They will not be able to recall the incident in the following morning.
Night terrors seem to occur in cycles. They may happen every night for several weeks, then disappear for months at a time. They are also more common in children whose family members have a history of night terrors, sleep walking, sleep talking, or bed wetting. It is said that by the age of 8 years old, half the cases will have grown out of this, but about a third will continue into adolescence.
Night Terrors are now thought to be caused by increased brain activity, and the common thought among researchers is that a chemical trigger causes your brain to 'misfire'. These misfires can be caused by many factors such as stress and various other medical ailments.
Usually the person has no recall of any bad dreams or nightmares, but may have a vague sense of frightening images. Many people see spiders, snakes, tigers or even people in the room. They are unable to be fully awakened and are difficult to comfort, with no memory of the event on awakening the next day.
How serious are they?
Nightmares and Dreaming
Childhood nightmares normally require no treatment, except for reassuring the frightened child. Occasionally, when nightmares become more frequent or occur on a regular basis, it may be a sign of stress in the child's life or environment.
Also, the content of the bad dream or nightmare may be a clue to what is stressing the child. In extreme situations of persistent nightmares, it may warrant an evaluation of the child's social environment and psychological state.
The Main Points
- Mainly affects children between 3 and 12 years old, but can occur at any age
- It does tend to run in the family
- Usually occurs 15 minutes to 1 hour after going to sleep
- The child or person doesn't awaken and is unable to be comforted
- Will not respond to the parents
- Can last between 10 and 20 minutes
- Doesn't remember the night time incidence
- Increased occurrences during times of stress or over-active daytime activity
- There is an 18% incidence of sleep walking and some children manage to actually leave their homes
- Very important to protect the child from injury
- Parents can be reassured that usually, night terrors will spontaneously disappear
Typically, children with night terrors are not in control, but are still awake. They may be sitting up in bed, appear frightened, staring with eyes wide open. They may also be sweating, breathing heavily, and complaining of seeing peculiar things or objects that are not really there. This period of terror may last for up to several minutes and then the child will usually go back to sleep. What distinguishes night terrors from nightmares is that the child does not recall the dream or event leading to the night terror, and in many cases, does not recall anything that has happened at all.
Although the exact cause of night terrors, nightmares, and other sleep disturbances is not understood, they are thought to be a result of waking up during a certain stage of the normal sleep cycle. Night terrors occur during the NON-REM sleep period. Nightmares, on the other hand, occur during another stage or during REM sleep. Night terrors are generally infrequent and usually stop on their own without specific treatment.
In rare cases where night terrors are frequent or associated with sleep walking, it is possible that specific medications may be required, but this occurs very rarely. In general, most children outgrow both nightmares and night terrors. Some people remember the following morning, but some don't. There is no explanation to why some have no recollection of the events.
Prevention and Possible Cures
- As Night Terrors usually occur between 15 minutes and an hour after the child falls asleep, gently awaken your child just before you go to bed yourself.
- Tuck them in and then say goodnight.
- Often, this disturbance of the sleep pattern will prevent them from having an attack that night. This needs to be repeated each night.
- Another approach:-
- Note the approximate time that a child has regularly attacks, then gently awaken the child, 15 minutes before he or she usually has the attack, then tuck them back into bed.
- If the above methods don't help and the attacks are violent, talk to your doctor about possible medication.
If you find that your child is experiencing a Night Terror, the best response is to hug and reassure them. Agree with everything they say or do. Don't shout and tell them they are only dreaming, as this only seems to upset them more and can have an adverse effect.
Note: This information is not medical advice. Always see your doctor if you have a health problem.