What causes night terrors in children and how can parents help?

January 25, 2021 3 mins read
What causes night terrors in children and how can parents help?

As a parent, you may have noticed that night terrors in children are different from nightmares. A night terror disrupts sleep, similar to a nightmare, but it is more disturbing. When your child has experienced a night terror, they are usually inconsolable.

Night terrors can be unsettling for both your child and yourself, so it’s important to know what causes them and what you can do to soothe your child.

What are night terrors?

Night terrors are nightmarish dreams typified by intense feelings of fear and often leading to screaming and crying. Sometimes, night terrors can include sleepwalking. An episode can last from a few seconds to a minute, although some episodes can go on for longer.

Night terrors affect about 40% of children. By the time they reach their teenage years, they tend to have outgrown them.

A night terror occurs when the central nervous system is over-aroused during sleep. This usually happens during the transition from non-REM sleep to light REM sleep (around 3 hours after falling asleep).

Symptoms of night terrors in children

During a night terror, your child can abruptly sit up or shout out and may be visibly distressed. Other symptoms to look out for include:

  • Diluted pupils
  • Appear awake but confused
  • Not say anything
  • Stare wide-eyed
  • Kick and thrash about
  • Be unresponsive to a parent’s comfort
  • Seem like they are unaware that their parent is in the room.
  • Be inconsolable
  • Display aggressive behaviour

Causes of night terrors in children

Like many sleep disturbances, night terrors can be caused by poor sleep hygiene habits, environmental stressors, or an underlying issue (like a sleep disorder or medical condition). Research has found that night terrors can be genetic.

Some of the common causes of night terrors include:

  • Not getting enough good quality sleep. If your child doesn’t have a proper bedtime routine, they may be more prone to night terrors.
  • Stress, depression or anxiety. Your child may be responding to environmental or emotional stressors, such as school stress and performance anxiety, bullying, or problems at home like tension between siblings or parents.
  • Sleeping in an unfamiliar environment can cause a night terror.
  • Sleep disorders like restless leg syndrome and sleep apnea can cause night terrors.
  • Medication affecting the central nervous system.
  • Drinking too much caffeine like coffee or sugary drinks.
  • If your child has a fever from an illness, they can experience night terrors.

How can you help stop your child’s night terrors?

Here is what to do if your child experiences night terrors:

  • Create a soothing bedtime routine. A bath or story before bed can help them relax.
  • Reduce things that may be causing your child stress.
  • Keep your child from getting overtired by sticking to an early and consistent bedtime.
  • Keep a sleep diary that notes your child’s sleeping patterns, habits and routine can help your GP in finding a tailored solution.
  • Let your child sleep through the episode. If you wake them, they may be confused and might struggle to fall asleep again.
  • If your child sleepwalks during an episode, gently move them away from obstacles and back to bed. Try not to wake them.

You should get help for night terrors for your child when episodes are coupled with snoring or other breathing problems. Visit your doctor if their night terrors occur frequently, lead to injury or harm others, affect their daily activities, or if the episodes continue into teenagehood.

Your doctor can recommend a strategy to help them sleep better and reduce the effects of sleep deprivation. When dealt with and managed properly, night terrors can become a thing of the past.