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Night Terrors vs. Nightmares: Here Is Everything You Need to Know
  • Training a baby to develop good sleeping habits is vital to your child’s health and development. And you want him to sleep soundly and without interruption at night, so you can get some shut-eye, too. So when your little one’s sleep gets disrupted, more so by a night terror, it can be a bit disconcerting.

    Night terrors are common among kids between ages 3 and 12 though it has also been reported to happen in babies as young as 18 months. It’s more likely to occur among girls than boys, but most kids grow out of it by their teenage years. Though a bit troubling to witness, night terrors are not always a cause for concern. In some cases, however, kids may require professional help to address the sleep disorder.

    Night terrors vs. nightmares

    Children may wake up crying or feeling afraid after having a nightmare or a scary dream. Encourage (not force!) your kid to tell you about his dream while reassuring him dreams are not real. Kids may have trouble falling back to sleep after having a nightmare, but they will eventually do so when they are ready. Keeping a nightlight or staying by his side as he waits to fall asleep may help.

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    A night terror, on the other hand, occurs during the deepest stage of sleep, and it is different from nightmares by a critical characteristic. The U.S. National Sleep Foundation explains children typically don’t wake up from night terrors. Most children will return back to sleep after having an episode, and will not remember it — not even fleeting images of it — when they wake up.


    According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a child who is experiencing a night terror might:

    • Cry uncontrollably
    • Sweat, shake or breathe fast
    • Have a terrified, confused or glassy-eyed look
    • Thrash around, scream, kick, or stare
    • Not recognize his parents or realize they are with him
    • Try to push his parents away especially if they try to hold him

    A night terror episode usually lasts only from a few seconds to a few minutes, but it can also last for as long as 45 minutes, according to the AAP.

    Causes and triggers of night terrors in children

    Like sleepwalking, sleep terrors are considered a parasomnia, a term that refers to the abnormal or undesired occurrences during sleep. Parasomnias often run in the family. It also occurs more in children than adults, mainly because their brain is not yet fully developed. But is not known to be associated with adverse health consequences as the child grows up.

    During sleep, a person goes through several sleep stages of both non-rapid eye movement sleep or “quiet sleep” and “active sleep”(rapid eye movement). Night terrors happen during non-REM sleep, while dreams and nightmares occur during REM sleep. They are likely caused by the over-arousal of the brain in between one sleep stage to another. It falls under non-REM sleep arousal disorder if it occurs when the brain is partially in non-REM sleep and partially awake enough to perform complex actions without any conscious awareness of them.

    Night terrors can be triggered by extreme tiredness, lack of sleep, stress, a change in sleep schedule or sleep environment, or a fever. It can also be set off by sleep apnea, some medications, too much caffeine, and mood disorders such as depression and anxiety.

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    Don’t forcibly wake up your child during a night terror

    The first thing parents should do when they see their child having a night terror is to stay calm. While it’s a little scary to watch your child go through an episode — and you might feel helpless — refrain from yanking them off of their slumber unless absolutely necessary, like when he’s putting himself in danger.

    What you can do is speak calmly and softly, and while using gentle gestures like a hand squeeze to offer reassurance. As some kids who experience sleep terrors may also end up sleepwalking, ensure your little one is safe and not in any physical danger. You can gently restrain him onto his bed until he eventually relaxes and goes back to normal sleep.

    Forcibly waking your child during a night terror usually doesn’t work, and if it does, your little one will wake up more likely to be disoriented and confused. The best thing to do when that happens is to calm them down and reassure them they are safe, advises sleep specialist Dr. Keith Aguilera, M.D., head of the Comprehensive Sleep Disorder at St. Luke’s Hospital.

    Preventing night terrors in kids

    There is no cure for night terrors, but you can help prevent it from happening. Setting a regular sleep schedule and a simple relaxing bedtime routine can make a huge difference by ensuring your child is well rested. Turn off screens an hour before bedtime. Do calming activities like giving your child a bath or reading a story. Studies have also shown that an earlier bedtime benefits kids more, so try not always let your child stay up too late at night.


    Revisiting your child’s schedule may help as well. See if he has too many things on his plate. Know what’s happening or if something is bothering your little one to check if anything is causing an increase in his stress levels.

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    When to consult your doctor about night terrors

    Night terrors are generally harmless, but a child who is often experiencing episodes may end up having severely disrupted sleep. This may lead to daytime fatigue and sleepiness and may also affect his daily tasks.

    If you think your child is having one too many night terrors, the AAP suggests you keep a sleep diary so you can adequately convey your concerns with your child’s pediatrician. Do this for a week or two and include information such as:

    • Where does your child sleep — in his own bed? Does he have his own room, or does he share it with a sibling? Is he or co-sleeping his parents?
    • How long does it take her to fall asleep
    • How often does she wake up during the night
    • How does your child fall asleep — does he need a lovey, favorite pillow, or blanket?
    • How much sleep does your child gets typically during the night and the time and length of his naps
    • What do you do to comfort and console her when she wakes up during the night
    • Any changes or stresses in the home

    Sleep terrors may also resemble other conditions or exhibit symptoms that may require more in-depth investigation as to its underlying cause if any. Consult your doctor if you notice any of these warning signs:

    • The child has drooling, jerking, or stiffening during his night terrors
    • Terrors last longer than 30 minutes
    • Your child does something dangerous, other than sleepwalking, during an episode
    • Your child develops daytime fears
    • Any other symptom or concern about your child’s night terrors

    Be sure to share with your family members, nanny, and other caregivers if your child is having night terrors, so you can educate them as well on how to deal with them appropriately.

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