How Do You Stop Night Terrors?

Reviewed on 2/26/2021
Night terrors do not often require any treatment or tests.
Night terrors do not often require any treatment or tests.

The following exercise has been shown to stop night terrors in 90% of children. 

  • For several nights, keep track of the time between falling asleep and the onset of the night terror.
  • Then, wake them up 15 minutes before the expected time of the episode, get them out of bed, and keep them fully awake for 5 minutes.
  • Do this for seven consecutive nights. If the night terrors recur, repeat the seven nights of awakenings.

Night terrors do not often require any treatment or tests. In most children, these terrors pass before children reach their teen years. If the problem persists, or in the case of sleep terrors in adults, it may be helpful to talk to the doctor or consult a sleep specialist. Below are a few common ways to stop night terrors:

  • Practicing good sleep hygiene, such as sleeping in a dark room with comfortable bedding
  • Having proper sleeping conditions, such as a cool room temperature
  • Limiting any caffeine intake or the intake of any other stimulants
  • Having routine bedtimes can all lead to quicker and better-quality sleep
  • In severe cases of night terrors, the doctor may prescribe an antidepressant, such as Tofranil (imipramine) or a benzodiazepine drug called chlordiazepoxide, which relieves nervousness or tension and treats insomnia
  • Night terrors in adults may be treated with medications, such as Tofranil and Klonopin or Valium (benzodiazepine drugs)
  • The doctor may recommend psychotherapy, which is a method of treating emotional problems. In psychotherapy, you talk with a therapist about their concerns and problems that may be linked to this sleep disturbance.

Here are things you can do to help your child with night terrors:

  • Comfort, reassure, and cuddle your child.
  • Help your child talk about the bad dreams during the day.
  • Protect your child from seeing or hearing frightening movies and television shows.
  • Leave the bedroom door open. Never close the door on a fearful child.
  • Provide a "security blanket" or toy for comfort.
  • Let your child go back to sleep on their bed.
  • Do not spend a lot of time searching for "the monster."
  • During the bedtime routine, before your child goes to sleep, talk about happy or fun things.
  • Read some stories to your child about getting over night-time fears.

The best thing parents can do for children who are having night terrors is to stay nearby. Parents should be ready to offer comfort, support, and protection from danger. Night terrors are usually over quickly. Although night terrors should not be a cause for concern, parents should consult their children's health care providers if they have any questions or concerns, especially if the night terrors persist and/or become frequent.

What are the causes and symptoms of night terrors?

Night terrors are an inherited problem and occur in about 2% of children. It is as if the child is having a bad dream during deep sleep and cannot wake up.

  • Night terrors are not caused by psychological stress, but they seem to be associated with being overtired.
  • Sometimes fever may trigger night terrors.
  • The occasional nightmare isn’t a sign of emotional disturbance and need not be a cause for concern. In fact, nightmares are often the product of a vivid imagination.
  • However, if your child is having a recurrent nightmare or the content of the dream is particularly disturbing, they might be experiencing stress during the day.
  • Trauma can also cause nightmares. If a child has experienced some type of trauma, they might have nightmares about it for several weeks or months afterward.
  • Night terrors are most common during the first third of the night, often between midnight and 2 a.m.
  • Children often scream and are very frightened and confused. They thrash around violently and are often not aware of their surroundings.
  • The child may not be able to respond to being talked to, comforted, or awakened.
  • The child may be sweating, breathing very fast (hyperventilating), have a fast heart rate, and widened (dilated) pupils.
  • The spell may last 10-20 minutes, then the child goes back to sleep.
  • Most children are unable to explain what happened the next morning. They often have no memory of the event when they wake up the next day.
  • Children with night terrors may also sleepwalk.
  • In contrast, nightmares are more common in the early morning. They may occur after you watch frightening movies or television shows or have an emotional experience. You may remember the details of a dream after waking up and will not be disoriented after the episode.

If night terror episodes occur often, the child should be evaluated by a doctor for a sleep study, which may help in ruling out a sleep disorder. Most children outgrow night terrors. Episodes usually decrease after the age of 10 years.

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References
Sleep Foundation. Night Terrors. OneCare Media. https://www.sleepfoundation.org/night-terrors

Kids Health. Night Terrors. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/terrors.html

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