Night terrors are a medical sleep disorder that affect about 5% of all children. They can happen at any age, starting from as young as 6 months. They can also occur in adulthood. Night terrors are often misdiagnosed as nightmares. So what is the difference between a nightmare and night terrors?
Nightmares occur during the dream phase of sleep. This stage is known as the REM stage and most people will enter this stage sometime after 90 minutes of sleep. Someone who has had a nightmare will often awaken straight away, and will have a vivid memory of it like a long movie like dream.
Night terrors usually occur during the deep non-REM stage of sleep, usually within the first hour. The sooner the night terror begins, often the more frightening it will be for the sufferer. Night terrors can last anything from a couple of minutes up to 20 minutes. They can go on longer. Joshua has been known to have night terrors lasting between 3 and 4 hours. During a night terror, the person remains asleep. Sometimes their eyes can be open but the person is not aware of the objects or people around them. Occasionally the person will just cry or shout. In some cases the person having the night terror will throw him/herself about screaming. They can also harm themselves, unintentionally either by lashing out or from other objects around them. When the person does wake up they will have a sense of fear, but in most cases will not remember the events of the night terror. Some research has shown a small minority of people do remember some or all of it.
If your child does have night terrors then it is important to understand that they will have no memory of what has happened. Some experts suggest waking the child up 10 minutes before the night terror would usually begin. This method is quite effective if your child has them at the same time each evening. When the child is having the night terror it is very important that you do not try to awaken them. This is difficult and hard to watch but the best thing to do is sit with them and whisper calming noises and words. If the child is lashing out then it might be wise to move anything that may harm or injure the child, such as small toys on the floor or bed. When the child is screaming and throwing him/herself about it is advised that you do not try to restrain them, this can lead to wilder behavior. Keep walk ways clear if they move off the bed during night terrors, fix stair gates to avoid dangerous accidents and lock all windows and doors leading to the outside.
You should also be aware that your child may hit or scream at you, they do not realise they are doing it. The child is still asleep although they seem awake.
When the child awakes offer them lots of reassurance. They will be feeling a sense of fear, but in most cases have no idea why. After a night terror the child will often fall straight back to sleep. It is important not to talk too much about the night terrors with your child. They may say things whilst having the night terror, but as most do not remember, questioning the child the next day will plant false, negative, memories in the child’s mind. This will make the child more anxious about falling asleep and could lead onto more problematic sleeping disorders.
What causes night terrors?
Night terrors occur due to an increase in brain activity. It is not clear on specific triggers but researchers in Canada believe it is due to a chemical trigger that “misfires”. These triggers are similar to those in people suffering from stress and anxiety. However, a small group of researches believe that night terrors in children occur during rapid growth stages. This also causes the brain to become more active. A clear reason to why children and adults suffer from night terrors has not yet been determined, however, the one thing that links many different researchers work is that the brain becomes more active, therefore increases the minds imagination.