There's nothing like a blood curdling scream coming from your child's bedroom to send you careening in there in a bolt of panic. Night terrors will do that to you. What you'll find is your child sitting upright in bed crying, thrashing and uttering words that make no sense to you. His eyes may be open, but he certainly doesn't see you.
Night terrors occur in approximately 6 percent of children. The typical age range is 4-12 years old, but they have been seen in children as young as 18 months old.
Night terrors are considered arousal disorders which occur as children transition from non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep (where dreams occur). They are a result of a child's immature nervous system and happen within the first 2-3 hours of a child's sleep.
When children are aroused during this vulnerable transition period, they have a sudden reaction of fear and anxiety -- thus the crying and thrashing about. They appear very upset, confused and may even look like they're having a tantrum. The important thing for parents to keep in mind is that it's not intentional. It is not a sign of defiance or emotional problem.
These night terrors will last anywhere from 30 seconds to 10 minutes and children will suddenly settle back down to sleep and have no recollection of the event. Children in the midst of night terrors may refuse your efforts to comfort and console. The best thing to do is stay calm, keep your child safe and wait for the storm to pass.
While night terrors are a result of a still maturing nervous system, they are also highly genetic. About 80 percent of kids who get them will have a close family member who has a history of them and/or sleepwalking.
Triggers include lack of sleep, overtiredness, stress, new sleeping arrangement, going to bed with a full bladder, taking a new medication, or anything that disrupts sleep such as obstructive sleep apnea.
Night terrors usually resolve as the nervous system matures. However, if your child seems to have prolonged night terrors (greater than 10 minutes), they happen more than twice per week, or are causing significant distress to the family, according to Dr. Craig Canapari (a pediatric pulmonologist and sleep specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital for children) it's reasonable to have them evaluated by a specialist to rule out any coexisting medical condition, such as a movement disorder or obstructive sleep apnea.
Dr. Mom's bottom line^When night terrors strike, the best way to cope is to remain calm, maintain a relaxing bedtime routine, keep your child's stress to a minimum and know that -- with time -- these terrifying screams in the night shall pass too.