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Understanding the Horror of Night Terrors

By Jeffrey Sterling, MD May 22, 2019

Introduction

This Straight, No Chaser post on night terrors is part of a series on sleep and sleep disorders.

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I wonder how many of you have been exposed to night terrors.  These are different than nightmares, which we all know and experience.  In a nightmare, Little Johnny has had a bad dream, maybe thinking there’s a monster under his bed.  He wants to be comforted by you, and he is still upset the next morning.  That’s not what a night terror looks like.

During a night terror, Little Johnny may be sleep walking, or he seems to wake up in the middle of the night and just starts screaming.  He’s really not communicative; he’s just terrified.  These episodes generally last about 15 minutes. Then he goes back to sleep.  The next morning, the child has no recollection of the event.

Causes and Triggers of Night Terrors

The cause of night terrors is unknown but they seem to be triggered by emotional stress and lack of sleep.  Febrile illnesses also seem to correlate with the presence of these episodes.

Who gets these?  Children less than age seven, more frequently boys.  These episodes usually stop by age 10.  There often is a family history.

There’s really no testing or treatment for these until they are frequent and prolonged, or unless a secondary injury occurs from all the trashing about.

I bring this to your attention because many parents are aware of this phenomenon and have no idea what to do when it occurs.  My best advice is to ensure that the child is safe during the episode for otherwise stress free children.  You may want to consider medical or psychological screening if the problem worsens.  Sleep well…

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