Is It Night Terrors or Just a Nightmare?

When your child wakes up screaming in the middle of the night you assume it is just a nightmare. But, is it? Fifteen percent of children suffer from a condition known as “night terrors.” The condition typically occurs in children ages 3 to 12, but can continue into adulthood. Most children outgrow the condition by the time they are 8 years old. Night terrors occur more commonly in boys and there is frequently a family history of the condition. Children in families with a history of bed wetting, sleep walking, or sleep talking are also more likely to be affected.

At first glance night terrors closely resemble nightmares. Children appear to wake from sleep, crying and screaming. However, there are some clear differences between the two. During a night terror children are not truly awake. Their eyes may be open and they are capable of walking or moving around, but they are actually in a very deep sleep. Sleep walking is common during an episode. It is almost impossible to wake the child up and they typically will not remember what happened the next morning.

The number of episodes can vary greatly with each person. They can occur every night for weeks and then suddenly stop for a period of time. Some people have as few as one per month. They usually occur within a couple of hours of falling asleep during the transition from stage 3 to stage 4 non-REM sleep. While most episodes last only a few minutes, they can go on for as long as 30 minutes before the person returns to normal sleep.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for this condition because no one has been able to figure out what actually causes night terrors. However, most researchers believe that a chemical trigger such as stress or other medical condition which causes the brain to misfire is the most likely cause. Maintaining a consistent sleep routine is recommended to decrease occurrences.

While night terrors are not considered dangerous, they are extremely frightening to watch. Parents are often overcome with feelings of helplessness because their child does not respond to being comforted. Children that sleep walk, kick, or thrash around can be injured by nearby objects. The condition disrupts the sleep of the entire family. If the frequency of episodes is causing sleep deprivation, do not hesitate to seek medical advice.

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