October 15, 2019
A number of children between the ages of 18 months and 6 years frequently wake screaming at the beginning or middle of the night, and seem terrified, disoriented or panicked. Although alarming to witness, occasional episodes of this nature are considered normal in children, and are known as night or sleep terrors. This sleep disorder (parasomnia) is “[…] characterized by abrupt awakening, sometimes with a scream; a sleeping child may sit up in bed, apparently terror-stricken, with wide-open eyes and often with frozen posturing that may last several minutes. Afterward there typically is no recollection of dreamlike experience.”1
As a parent, seeing your child screaming in a state of terror is certainly disconcerting and may cause feelings of helplessness. Fortunately, this article provides all the information and tools to help you understand and deal with night terrors.
Night terrors can occur in babies as young as 18 months, but are more frequent between 3 and 6 years old. It is said that 40%2 of children are prone to night terrors, and that these episodes are more common among boys. Genetics are believed to be the main cause of night terrors, meaning if either of the child’s parents or grandparents experienced childhood night terrors, he or she may also have episodes. Some external factors can also heighten or trigger night terrors in predisposed children:
- Sleep deprivation
- Noisy environment at nighttime
- Sleep schedule disruptions
- Medication affecting the central nervous system
- Sleep apnea
- Unusual physical effort (late-night exercise)
Moreover, disruptions in the child’s sleeping routine can provoke stress, which in turn induces night terrors. Here are a few examples of such disruptions: changing daycare or school class, stopping day-time naps, changing sleep habits, moving, parents separating or any other event affecting the day-to-day.
The signs of a night terror vary from one person to the other, but some are more frequent than others. During an episode, your child might:
- Appear terrified
- Sit up in bed
- Stare blankly wide-eyed
- Talk gibberish
- Be aggressive
- Not tolerate being touched or held
During night terrors, some children scream, vomit or shake all over. As parents, these abrupt episodes can be extremely distressing and nerve-racking, especially the first time around. Thankfully, there are things you can do to favour a good night's sleep.
It’s important to know that children who experience night terrors may start sleepwalking and talking in their sleep after the age of 5. These symptoms usually disappear at adolescence but may reappear at adulthood. Bed wetting may also occur until the age of 10.
You shouldn’t wake or surprise a child during a night terror; your child is not aware of your presence and is still asleep. Night terrors happen at the beginning and middle of the night, during the deepest stage of sleep. This means terrors can happen several times overnight. When your child has an episode, the best thing to do is remain calm, use a soothing voice and carefully put him or her back to sleep. If your child recoils from your touch, simply stay near to ensure he or she doesn’t fall out of bed or get injured; wait for your child to go back to sleep. If your child fully wakes up, try not to appear worried or stressed as you risk showing something disturbing happened. This could make putting your child to sleep harder and create insecurities towards bedtime. I recommend you create a well-defined bedtime routine, maintain a regular sleep schedule and plan relaxing activities such as storytelling, lullabies, board games, tickles, massages, or slow breathing exercises. All these rituals will favour calm and peaceful sleeping. However, despite all this, your child may still have night terrors. In this case, you could wake your child up before the terrors occur to go to the bathroom or drink a glass of water. Repeat this routine every day for several weeks. If the night terrors persist, I suggest you discuss them with your family doctor. You can also ask your child questions to know if something is bothering him or her. You’re the detective here: heighten your sense of observation to understand what your child goes through on a daily basis.
In the end, simply be calm and patient; night terrors eventually disappear. Establish a calm and peaceful routine with your child and don’t forget to dedicate five to ten minutes towards spending quality time together every day. Talk with your child during meals, in the car, coming back from day care or school rather than before bedtime. This will help your child let go of stress factors so he or she can have a good night’s sleep! Finally, family coaches can guide you in coming up with effective and positive strategies.
Laithicia Adam, Family Coach
Member of Réseau Nanny Secours
1. Dream. (2019). Encyclopædia Britannica.
2. Naître et Grandir. Les terreurs nocturnes. https://naitreetgrandir.com/fr/etape/5-8-ans/comportement/fiche.aspx?doc=ik-naitre-grandir-enfant-sommeil-dodo-peur-terreur-nocturne&gclid=Cj0KCQjwivbsBRDsARIsADyISJ_jIT1mGe-YBOyvYZFJxqa_4dS6Mi6j0R75ApSxFW8-Haf-Ev4In74aAns5EALw_wcB