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Night terrors are a sleep problem occurring for some young children. Estimates range from 3% to 15% of younger children experiencing them. Night terrors are more common in children between two and six year of age. However, they can occur at any age, even as young as 18 months. Night terrors seem to be more common in boys.

Night Terrors and Nightmares

Night terrors are different from nightmares in several ways. Night terrors happen during deep non-REM sleep and nightmares occur during REM sleep. A nightmare is a frightening dream; however, a night terror is not technically a dream, but a sudden reaction of fear that happens during the transition from one sleep phase to another. Therefore, if your child gets frequent night terrors, it may help to wake your child up before the time that they usually have a night terror to interrupt the sleep cycle, as this may prevent night terrors from occurring. Additionally, unlike nightmares, night terrors usually occur in the early part of the night, about 1 to 4 hours after going to sleep.

What Is a Night Terror?

Night terrors are very frightening to parents because of their appearance. A child will using bolt upright with their eyes wide open, displaying fear and panic. Additionally, children let out what has been called a “blood-curdling” scream. Their physical responses are sweating, fast breathing, and a rapid heart rate. Although a child experiencing night terrors appears to be awake, they are not. Your child will appear confused, be inconsolable, and will not recognize you.

Typically, night terrors last from five to thirty minutes. When they are over, your child will usually return to a regular sleep. You will probably not be able to wake your child up during a night terror, and if you do, your child is likely to become scared and agitated. Therefore, it is best not to try to wake your child, but just stay and comfort them and help them get back to sleep when the night terror ends.

It is comforting to note that most children outgrow night terrors as they grow older. Until they do so, make sure baby sitters, grandparents, and other caregivers are aware that your child has them and explain to them what they should do if one occurs.

There are some steps you can take to prevent your child from having night terrors.

  • Since night terrors seem to occur more frequently in children who are overtired, stressed, or fatigued, make sure you have a sleep schedule and that your child is getting a good night’s rest every night.
  • There is some indication that some medications cause night terrors. So, if your child begins taking a new medication, find out if night terrors are a potential side effect.
  • Some children experience night terrors when in a new environment or away from home, a reason that will correct itself when your child is back in a familiar environment.

Although night terrors can be upsetting for parents, knowing what they are and some of the causes can help you deal with them more effectively. Remember, do not wake your child, but wait for the night terror to pass. With a good sleep schedule, adequate exercise, and a healthy life style, night terrors are much less likely to happen.

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