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April 15, 2024

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When Sleep Becomes Terrifying

Between the ages of 4 and 12, some children can have their night time sleep disrupted by an episode of extreme fear — a night terror. Here's what you should know.

A few hours after 10-year-old Tyler went to sleep, his parents suddenly heard stark screams coming from his room. They bolted up the stairs and found Tyler wildly thrashing about on his bed, moaning and crying out. He was sweating, his eyes wide and glassy. His frightened folks didn’t know what to do, so his mom just tried to get next to him and wrap her arms around him, but she quickly realized it was useless. Tyler’s inconsolable screams continued for several minutes until, exhausted, he stopped, curled up into his bed and fell back to sleep. His baffled, relieved parents quietly left the room. Tyler had just endured a night terror.

Nightmares Vs. Night Terrors
While all of us experience nightmares and bad dreams beginning between the ages of 2 and 4 (and continuing sporadically all of our lives), Phaythoune Chothmounethinh (Dr. Phay), M.D., a family medicine specialist who practices in Hendersonville, says night terrors can happen to children between the ages of 4 and 12. They also happen to up to 56 percent of kids before age 13. The difference between a nightmare and a night terror is clear.
Nightmares often occur in the early hours of the morning. A child can wake up and tell his parents what troubling things he “saw” or experienced (though it may be a confused jumble). Night terrors start a few hours into sleep — and in the middle of deep sleep.
If your child wakes in the night screaming, overly agitated and unresponsive to you, he’s experiencing a night terror. It can frighten a parent who’s never seen one, since the child is loud … and terrified. It’s important to realize that night terrors are normal, they don’t happen often, and they will stop somewhere around age 12. Dr. Phay also says your child won’t remember the terror the next day.

What Should You Do?

Since night terrors occur during deep REM sleep, doctors agree that parents shouldn’t try to wake a child by shaking him or shouting at him. This can disrupt his deep sleep even more, causing agitation, confusion and possibly more sleep disruption on other nights. Stay with your child in case he tries to get out of bed to sleep walk since that can be dangerous.
Of course, parents always want to know what they can do to help their kids. They want to know why a night terror is happening, but there’s really no clear-cut answer. It may be extreme tiredness, stress, illness, a new medication or a mood disorder. It’s helpful to know that night terrors are considered normal and plenty of other kids experience them.

Try a “Scheduled Waking”

There is something you can try to help offset your child’s night terrors.
“For night terrors in older children, ‘scheduled awakening’ is a behavioral technique where you wake up your child 15 – 20 minutes before the usual time when the sleep terrors occur,” says Dr. Phay.
“During the scheduled waking, comfort him and behave as you would when awakened by him.” Doing this as a routine disrupts his sleeping pattern and can help him sleep through the night again within one month’s time.
Night terrors are not usually a cause for concern, but if they happen often, it’s a good idea to consult with your pediatrician. The good news is — as with most “stages” of growing up — this too shall pass.


About the Author

Susan Swindell Day

Susan Day is the editor in chief for this award-winning publication and all-things Nashville Parent digital creative. She's also an Equity actress, screenwriter and a mom of four amazing kids.