Night Terrors in Children

Night terrors in children are common. Many experience them and nightmares too but eventually will grow out of them. According to the NHS however, night terrors are different to nightmares. As with night terrors, children may scream, thrash around or may not recognise you if you try to console and comfort them.

Night terrors are also known as parasomnias. Parasomnias are abnormal behaviours that occur during sleep. They include night terrors, sleepwalking, confusional arousals, and nightmares. Parasomnias are often misdiagnosed as psychiatric disorders such as anxiety disorder, depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, or ADHD. This leads to unnecessary treatment with psychotropic medications.

But if your child has been having night terrors, it doesn’t mean they have any psychological problems. If they become frequent, then seeking advice from a GP is advised.

What are night terrors?

Night terrors tend to occur from REM sleep and it’s not technically a dream but more of a sudden reaction of fear. This usually happens when their sleep moves from the deepest stage to a lighter stage of sleep. Night terrors often occur about 2 or 3 hours after a child falls asleep and when they wake abruptly from non-dream sleep. 

They also tend to be more common in children aged between 3 and 8 years old. During these episodes, their eyes will be open but the child won’t be fully awake, they also won’t have any recollection of the night terror… They can last up to 15 minutes and can actually occur more than once during the night

What’s the difference between a nightmare and a night terror?

Nightmares – Those who have had nightmares wake up from their dream and will remember details about their nightmare.

Night terrors – Those who have experienced night terrors will remain asleep or in a sleep state. They won’t remember their night terrors in the morning and may react physically to their terrors.

What causes night terrors in childeren?

Night terrors are more common in children if they have a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking behaviour.

A common trigger may be:

  • An increase in your child’s deep sleep – it could be due to tiredness, sleep deprivation, fever or even certain medications.
  • Situations that are likely to wake your child from a deep sleep – like excitement, anxiety, a full bladder or sudden noises.
  • Stress or anxiety.

What are the signs and symptoms of night terrors?

These are some of the signs of night terrors in kid (although your child may not exhibit all or any of them):

  • A sudden movement to sit upright in bed.
  • Shouts or screams in distress.
  • A quickened breath and a faster heartbeat.
  • They may start sweating.
  • They may start thrashing around in bed.
  • They may show signs of upset and fear.

What you should do –

The best thing to do if your child is having an episode of night terrors is to stay calm and wait until they calm down. It’s best not to disturb them (which is the same with sleepwalkers). Don’t try to wake them and if you try to comfort them they may rebuke you, as it’s difficult to calm down children when they have a night terror. 

Night terrors can be frightening to witness, especially when it’s your child, but unless they’re not safe, don’t intervene or attempt to wake your child. They may not recognise you or the environment they’re in. 

Keep a sleep diary for your child and monitor when their night terrors occur, and if you notice that they are having frequent night terrors and happen at a specific time, it may help to ‘break’ the cycle. Meaning around 10-15 minutes before the estimated time of a night terror, wake your child up. Repeat this for a week and it may help them and stop them from having night terrors, as it’ll disrupt the sleeping pattern that is resulting in the terrors.

What food causes night terrors?

There’s not a definite list of foods that cause night terrors. But there are foods that can affect the digestive system that may lead to nightmares, night terrors or just disturbed sleep. We’ve listed a few of them below:

  • Cheese – So, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s a common fact that eating cheese at a later time can cause disturbed sleep or even nightmares. Although it’s not confirmed why eating cheese too close to bedtime can result in bad dreams.
  • Chocolate – This isn’t just to stop your kids from munching on the sweet goodness…  But chocolate has been labelled as a culprit of bizarre and unsettling dreams when eaten before bed or late at night. The dairy may be the reason, or even if there’s any amount of caffeine in the chocolate. So, it may be one to leave in the cupboard until the following afternoon.
  • Bananas – Even though bananas are a healthy fruit and a good source of potassium, it’s not the best idea to have them before bed as it is packed with natural sugars. This means it will cause the stomach to continue digesting overnight – leading to possible vivid dreams and maybe nightmares.

Tips on how to reduce the occurrence of night terrors in children

There are many ways you can help reduce the instance of night terrors in kids and to ensure they have a calm and relaxing bedtime routine. This can be done by:

  • Have a warm bath before bedtime.
  • Reading a bedtime story to them.
  • Cease smart device uses an hour before bedtime.
  • Ensure the bedroom is a calm environment for your child.
  • Play relaxing music before bedtime.
  • Set an earlier bedtime or a regular time for sleep each night and try not to encourage sleeping in on the weekends. This will ensure they have a regular sleep pattern and can help reduce the instance of night terrors.
  • Try not to give your child food or drink within 1 – 1.5 hours before bed.
  • Try to ensure the temperature in the bedroom is comfortable.
  • Ensure noise levels are at a minimum.
  • Make playtime after dinner a relaxing activity. A more excitable activity might keep them awake. 
  • Avoid sleeping with your child.

When should you seek help?

The night terrors will eventually stop, as they grow out of it. But if it becomes a reoccurring issue and you’ve tried everything you can, it might be time to seek advice from your GP. Alternatively, have a read on what the NHS website suggests.

They will be able to check whether something that’s easily treatable is causing the episodes. For example, large tonsils could be causing breathing problems at night and waking your child, or a disturbed sleeping pattern.

Final words…

Night terrors in children are unsettling to experience, as well as witness. It can upset both of you and lead to stress for the parent, as you may feel helpless. But if your child is experiencing night terrors, try to remember not to wake them and to help mitigate the event, carry out any of the suggestions above. Night terrors does not mean anything is wrong with your child, but if you feel like nothing is helping, then speak to your GP.

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