Nightmares and night terrors in children
© 2008 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Night terrors in children—also known as “sleep terrors”—are sometimes confused with nightmares. But there are several key differences between night terrors and nightmares.
Here’s how to tell the difference, and what you can do to treat these conditions.
Nightmares in children
Nightmares are the very common “bad” or frightening dreams associated with REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Because most REM sleep happens later at night, nightmares are more likely to occur after your child has been sleeping for several hours.
Kids are capable of remembering nightmares, especially if they awaken during or immediately after a nightmare ends. Triggers for nightmares include stress, anxiety, traumatic events, and medications that interfere with REM sleep (Moore et al 2006). Kids who awaken from nightmares need to be reassured that their dreams weren’t real. To help kids cope with emotions associated with nightmares, see my article on
nighttime fears in children.
Night terrors in children
Like nightmares, night terrors in children are distressing and disruptive. But night terrors in children differ from nightmares in other key respects:
• Night terrors are NOT associated with REM sleep. Instead, they occur when a child is partially aroused from deep sleep—usually 1-2 hours after sleep onset (Moore et al 2006).
• During a night terror—which may last for 5-10 minutes—your child isn’t fully awake. But he will appear terrified, and he may cry, scream, or mumble. He may also move around or sleep walk. Because he isn’t really awake, he will be unaware of your presence or your attempts to soothe him (Moore et al 2006).
• After he awakens, your child probably won’t remember the experience. When kids do remember something about their experiences, they report memories of having to fight or flee from frightening monsters or other threats (Guilleminault et al 2003).
• Because they can involve sleepwalking and other forms of movement, night terrors in children can be physically dangerous
What causes night terrors in children?
We don't really know.
But night terrors may run in the family (Hublin et al 2001). And night terrors in children are also associated with overtiredness, anxiety, stress, and sleep-disordered breathing (Crisp et al 1990; Petit et al Guilleminault et al 2003).
Coping with night terrors in children
If you suspect your child suffers from night terrors, consult your doctor. It’s important to rule out other conditions that could be causing your child’s symptoms—conditions like nocturnal seizures, panic attacks, or post traumatic stress disorder.
In addition, it’s important to determine if your child’s night terrors are associated with snoring or other forms of sleep-disordered breathing (SDB). SDB can be dangerous, but it is treatable.
And if you treat your child’s breathing disorder, you might also cure her of sleep terrors. A recent study tracked kids with both SBD and night terrors. Researchers found that kids who underwent surgery for SBD were free of sleep-disordered breathing symptoms 3-4 months later. They were also free of night terrors (Guilleminault et al 2003).
But whether or not your child suffers from SDB, there are other important steps you can take to treat—and perhaps prevent—night terrors:
• Make sure your child is getting enough sleep. See this article for help
determining your child’s sleep requirements.
• Identify and treat your child’s anxieties.
For tips on coping with anxieties may fuel night terrors in children, see my article on nighttime fears.
• Avoid late night exercise (Moore et al 2006).
• Make sure your child’s sleep environment as safe as possible. Remove heavy and sharp objects from the bedroom.
• If your child’s night terrors follow a predictable pattern each night, consider the treatment known as “scheduled awakenings.” This treatment involves waking your child up about 30 minutes before you expect him to suffer a night terror episode. Let him go to the bathroom, then return him to bed. In small clinical trials, this treatment had a lasting, beneficial effect on both sleep walking and night terrors in children (e.g., Durand 2002; Frank et al 1997).
Crisp AH, Matthews BM, Oakley M, and Crutchfield M. 1990 Sleepwalking, night terrors and consciousness. BMJ 300: 360-362.
Durand VM. 2002. Treating sleep terrors in children with autism. Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, Vol. 4: 66-72.
Frank NC, Spirito A, Stark L, and Owens-Stively A. 1997. The use of scheduled awakenings to eliminate childhood sleep walking. Journal of Pediatric Psychology 22: 345-353.
Guilleminault C, Palombini L, Pelayo R, Chervin RD. 2003. Sleepwalking and sleep terrors in prepubertal children: what triggers them? Pediatrics. Jan;111(1):e17-25.
Hublin C, Kaprio J, Partinen M 2001. Parasomnias: Co-occurrence and genetics. Psychuatr Genet 11: 65-70.
Moore M, Allison A, and Rosen CL. 2006. A review of pediatric nonrespiratory sleep disorders. Chest 130(4): 1252-1262.
Petit D, Touchette E, Tremblay RE, Bolvin M, and Montplaiser J. 2006. Dyssomnias and parasomnias in early childhood. Pediatrics 119: e1016-e1025.
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