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Helping your Child Overcome Night Terrors

06/03/2013 | Room to Grow | by Catherine Godiva

About 3% of the population is affected by night terrors, a common disorder that generally strikes young children and can leave them extremely agitated, distressed and possibly even screaming in their beds. There is usually a family history of night terrors and they tend to affect boys more so than girls although the reason for this fact has yet to be determined. Some scientists believe it is due to the hormone testosterone but studies are inconclusive.

Sometimes called ‘sleep terrors’, night terrors are when a child, for an as yet unknown reason, suffers from a period of extreme agitation that makes them cry, shake, scream and otherwise become highly agitated during the night. They are different from nightmares in that they usually happen at the beginning of the night and are usually forgotten while a nightmare happens towards the end of the night and is usually remembered.

Another way that they differ is that, during a night terror, it can be very difficult to wake the child up.  Indeed, many times their eyes will be wide open and it will appear that they are awake when in fact they are not and do not respond to voices or other sounds around them.

It appears that night terrors are cyclical as well, as they happen for several weeks and then can stop for weeks or even months.  The children who suffer the most seem to be those who have a family member with a history of night terrors, sleep walking, bed wetting and sleep talking.  About 2/3 of children who suffer from night terrors will grow out of them, thankfully, by age 8.

Some of the common symptoms and facts of night terrors include;

·       They mainly affect children from 3 to 12 years old.

·       They tend to have a family history.

·       They occur within 15 minutes of falling asleep, on average.

·       The child won’t wake up during the episode or respond to anyone.

·       They last between 10 to 20 minutes in length.

·       The child will not remember anything about the episode.

·       They occur more when a child is stressed or over-active.

·       They will usually spontaneously disappear.

Prevention and possible cures for night terrors include gently awakening the child between 15 minutes to an hour after they have fallen asleep, then letting them go back to sleep. Tucking them in at night has the same effect, which is to break up their sleep pattern so that the night terror is prevented. You can also make a note over several days as to when the night terrors occur and make sure to wake them about 10 to 20 minutes before that time until they stop having the attacks.  Medications to help stop the attacks are available but should only be used in extreme situations.


The best response if your child is actually having a night terror is to hug them, even if they don’t know it’s you, and reassure them that everything is going to be alright. Agree with whatever they say, don’t yell or get upset, and then just let them fall back to sleep again. 

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