How To Deal With Night Terrors In Children

By: Shen-Li Lee


To understand a night terror and how to deal with it appropriately, it is important to be able to distinguish a night terror from a nightmare. A nightmare is merely a bad dream and is easily managed, however, night terrors need to be dealt with differently.
During sleep, a person goes through 5 different phases of sleep - REM phase and 4 non-REM phases. REM stands for rapid eye movement and is the phase of sleep where regular dreams and nightmares occur. REM is the lightest phase of sleep and a person enters it several times during the night. The REM phase is also the last phase we enter before waking - which is the reason why we sometimes remember our last dream.
When a person is in the REM phase, there is a noticeable twitching movement of the eyes under closed lids (hence the term rapid eye movement), and the voluntary muscles of the body are usually paralysed. This paralysis of the muscles protects individuals from harming themselves in their sleep while dreaming.
A person having a nightmare is in the REM phase of sleep - the lightest phase - and are therefore usually easily woken and calmed. When asked, they can usually remember what the nightmare was about.
Unlike nightmares, night terrors occur during the fourth phase of sleep and commonly occur in childhood. The fourth phase of sleep is the deepest phase of sleep which is the reason why it is usually very difficult to wake a child having a night terror. Additionally, there is no protection from paralysis of the voluntary muscles during the fourth phase of sleep therefore a child experiencing a night terror can hurt himself or herself. This is part of the danger of a night terror.
A child experiencing a night terror may sit upright in bed with their eyes wide open however he or she is neither awake nor asleep. With night terrors, there is usually no recall of the experience or what it was about. Night terrors occur usually within the first four hours of falling asleep and can last anywhere between 5 to 30 minutes. Once the night terror is over, the child will return to normal sleep.
Night terrors generally occur in young children and are thought to be due to an immature sleep pattern. The good news is that children do eventually outgrow night terrors as they get older.
How to Deal with Night Terrors in Children
Children experiencing night terrors should not be woken as it usually makes them more agitated and afraid as a result of their parents' reaction to the night terror. Since they won't remember the episode, there is little point in waking them only to startle them further. Night terrors are generally more alarming to parents than they are to the child and it might be reassuring to note that there are no known painful or negative after effects from having a night terror.
The most important thing to do with a child having a night terror is to ensure they are safe. Remember that night terrors occur in the fourth phase of sleep and children can easily harm themselves through any violent movements - thrashing around, running through the house, etc. You should also try to comfort them by holding them and speaking to them. Although the child may not be fully conscious, he or she can still hear your voice and be calmed by it. Once the night terror is over, help the child return to sleep.
Night terrors do not require treatment, however, in very severe cases, some doctors may recommend medication. Aside from soothing and keeping your child safe, you can adopt the following practices to help prevent or reduce the likelihood of night terrors:
1. Establish a good bedtime routine.
2. Ensure that your child has sufficient sleep with appropriate naps during the day before your child becomes overtired. It has been found that night terrors are often triggered when a child becomes overtired.
3. Minimise stress by dealing with any problems at home or in school.

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Shen-Li is a stay-at-home-mum dedicated to the pursuit of excellence in parenting. She has a formal educational background and former work experience in healthcare. If you enjoyed this article, visit her blog Babylicious and follow her as she learns how to raise a happy, confident and successful person.

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