[Editor’s note: If you follow this advice and are unable to prevent your child’s night terrors, and they continue to cause sleep disruptions for your family, it may be time to seek a doctor’s help. Sleep is critical to the health of your entire family.]
Many a parent has been woken up by the bloodcurdling scream of their child in the middle of the night from what they assume is a bad dream. Once they try to wake the child unsuccessfully, though, it soon becomes clear that they are not dealing with a simple nightmare.
The problem: Nightmares or night terrors?
There is a big difference between night terrors and nightmares—the latter are very common in young children—the former, less so. “Many parents confuse nightmares with night terrors,” a much more severe version of a nightmare, says Gabriel Smith, health and wellness consultant with Sleep Train.
Normally occurring in children ages 4 to 12, night (or sleep) terrors can be very upsetting for the entire family. Approximately 6.5% of children and only 2.2% of adults experience night terrors, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. According to Eve G Spratt, MD, MSc, night terrors may even have a genetic component.
Nightmares only occur in the REM stage of sleep, while night terrors occur between stage three and stage four non-REM sleep. They are in the same class of sleep disorders that include sleepwalking and parasomnia. In fact, according to Spratt, many children who experience sleep terrors go on to sleepwalk later.
Frightening to parents, and rightfully so, night terrors are characterized by intense crying, kicking or thrashing, terror, and the inability to be roused from the nightmare state.
There are many factors that Spratt says may contribute to an episode of night terrors. She lists the following factors as potential triggers:
- Inadequate or irregular sleep schedule
- Unfamiliar or disruptive sleep environment
- Concurrent fever or illness
- Certain medications, including central nervous system (CNS) depressants (eg, sedative-hypnotics and alcohol) and some stimulants
- A full bladder during sleep
- Generalized stress
- Obstructive sleep disorders
That being said, some parents are unable to determine a pattern to their child’s episodes, and many are desperate for a cure. “There is a wealth of strange solutions and inaccurate advice that I hear about. It is no surprise that many parents are unable to successfully stop their child’s night terrors,” Smith says. The most pervasive and inaccurate myth he hears is that it is dangerous to wake a child in the middle of a night terror episode. It may be difficult, he says, but it is not dangerous.
The solution: It’s all in the timing
So how do you stop your child’s night terrors? Well, as the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
First, start a journal. Note the last meal a child eats before they go to bed and the time she ate it (it may show you a pattern later on). Secondly, note the time that your child falls asleep. Lastly, note the exact time that their night terror occurs.
Most night terrors occur approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep, when your child transitions for the first time between stage three and stage four non-REM sleep.
Waking your child up about an hour after they fall asleep (or, at the latest, ) will essentially prevent the night terror from happening at all. Smith notes, though, that “You need to wake a child completely in order for this to be successful.” Offering a sip of water or taking the child to the bathroom should do the trick.
Sleep experts aren’t entirely sure why this doesn’t start the cycle over again, but this method works wonders for most to stop night terrors in their tracks.
Most families are able to stop their child’s night terrors with a little bit of experimentation, which is why journaling is key to the solution. If your child enters stage four sleep earlier than most, you might not interrupt their sleep cycle in time. Noting this and waking them earlier might just do the trick. Also, by noting their diet, you may detect patterns in night terror occurrences and avoid foods that might trigger them.
There is not a clear-cut answer to how long you’ll have to keep waking your child after sleep. Some families only have to do this for a week or two, while others will have to do it for months or the night terrors will return.
The night terrors may disappear for months, even years, without you needing to wake your child every night, but occasionally and randomly can return again to disturb your family’s sleep. Simply resume waking your child again every night—if it worked before, it will probably work again. Luckily, Spratt notes, most children stop having night terrors before the onset of adolescence.