Night Terrors and How to Live With Them

Night terrors terrorize everyone within earshot. Read on to learn how to live with this sleep disorder.

By Andrea Pisani Babich

Living with someone who is plagued with night terrors can be almost more terrifying than having a night terror itself. Watching your children shriek and kick uncontrollably makes your child’s parasomnia a kind of night terror of your own. And being awakened by your partner’s blood curdling scream night after night can rob both of you of the sleep you need as well as put a strain on your relationship.

Scared little girl staying sleepless hiding behind the duvet looking horrified in the dark having childhood nightmares in child imagination Sleeping disorders Stress Depression and Insomnia concept.

What Are Night Terrors?

Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are a relatively rare type of parasomnia, or sleep disorder. They directly affect more children than adults. Fortunately, children usually grow out of them by adolescence.

Characteristics of childhood night terrors include:

  • Sitting up in bed
  • Crying uncontrollably
  • Screaming or shouting
  • Profusely sweating
  • Accelerated heartbeat, racing pulse, heavy breathing
  • Looking terrified, confused, or glassy eyed
  • Attempting to push you away if you try to hold them

Perhaps most upsetting for you as a parent is your inability to console or sooth your child when they are in the grips of a night terror. In fact, you won’t even be able to awaken them. Most night terrors last only a few minutes, but some can last as long as 30 to 45 minutes. After that, the child will return to quiet sleep.

As traumatic as the event appears to the observer, the child experiencing a night terror will have no memory of it the next day. And rest assured, these events are not harmful and are not an indication of a mental disorder. As long as your child does not hurt themselves while kicking and flailing around or getting out of bed, the night terror will resolve on its own without injuring your child.

Although the child or adult experiencing the night terror usually returns to sleep without awakening, their sleep cycle has clearly been disrupted. They as well as their family members may experience daytime sleepiness and irritability the day after a night terror episode.

Night Terrors vs. Nightmares

Night terrors may be confused with nightmares because they both frighten your child and disrupt their sleep. There are some crucial differences, however, that can determine how you respond to each sleep disruption.

Night terrors often occur about 90 minutes after your child falls asleep when they are still in the deepest stage of non-REM sleep (non-Rapid-Eye-Movement sleep) and begin to transition to lighter, REM sleep. Nightmares occur during the REM sleep stage. Children experiencing them are able to be awakened and can recall the dream in the morning.

The most obvious difference is that during a nightmare, people experience sleep paralysis and cannot move. When your child is experiencing night terrors, however, they may be sitting up in bed, kicking their legs, or thrashing about. They may even get out of bed and run out of their bedroom.

What to Do When Your Child Has a Night Terror

Do not try to wake your child up. Doing so many prolong the night terror or make it more severe. You should remain with them until the terror passes to be sure they don’t hurt themselves.

Make the bedroom a safe sleep environment. This is especially important for a child who may toss and turn during a night terror or even get out of bed. Remove breakable objects from the nightstand, and clear the floor of toys or other objects that may pose a tripping hazard. Consider putting a gate on the bedroom door if you child could get out of bed and fall down stairs.

Keep notes. Detail any abnormalities in your child’s schedule to try to determine specific triggers.

Avoid talking about the terrifying event with your child. Making a big deal of it may frighten your child, making the prospect of sleep time fraught with anxiety, which could lead to more night terrors or other sleep disorders. They won’t remember the event anyway.

Night Terrors in Adults

Night terrors in adults look very much like those children experience with a few key differences. In adults, night terrors can occur anytime during the sleep cycle. Unlike children, they can awaken from their night terrors and can recall the event at least in part. Also, because adults may wake up in terror, they may react to a fleeting hallucination or image that may be influenced by the person’s visual adjustment to the darkened bedroom.

These sleep terrors may be more dangerous in adults because they are more likely than children to jump out of bed, run around the house, or even become violent.

Only about 2% of adults experience night terrors (compared to as many as 15% of children) and they are usually associated with a long history of depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety.

Causes of Night Terrors and Risks

The exact cause of night terrors remains a mystery. But sleep experts know that people who experience them usually have a family member who also suffers from them. Children whose sleep is disordered by night terrors often are bothered by other parasomnias like sleep walking and sleep talking.

Suspected triggers of night terrors include:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Obstructive sleep apnea
  • A full bladder
  • Emotional stress or anxiety
  • Fever
  • Noise or light
  • Some medicines

Treatment Options for Night Terrors

The occasional night terror usually does not require treatment, but if someone has frequent episodes, it’s time to take action. If you suspect the night terrors may be associated with an underlying condition, such as obstructive sleep apnea or depression, you should consult with a doctor and possibly undergo a sleep study to help determine the cause and develop a treatment plan.

Eliminating potential triggers like those listed above may go a long way to stopping night terrors before they attack.

  • Reduce stress through exercise, mindfulness techniques, meditation, and yoga. Talk to your child about possible sources of stress or anxiety.
  • Improve sleep hygiene by keeping regular bedtimes and wake times, keeping the bedroom cool and comfortable, and establishing a calming bedtime routine.
  • Avoid sleep deprivation by getting the recommended amount of sleep.
    • 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night for adults
    • 10 to 13 hours for children ages 3 to 5
    • 9 to11 hours for children ages 6 to 13

Medication is usually considered a treatment option of last resort, especially in children. Benzodiazepines or certain antidepressants may be prescribed when frequent, potentially dangerous, or extremely disruptive night terrors persist even after lifestyle changes have been made.

Scheduled awakening therapy uses the predictability of night terrors to combat them. Because night terrors often occur around the same time each episode, you can gently wake your terror-stricken child or set an alarm for yourself 15-30 minutes before the event typically occurs. This kind of scheduled awakening breaks the sleep cycle and prevents the night terror. Studies have shown that scheduled awakening therapy cures 9 of 10 afflicted children who have tried it.

Unfortunately, having to wake your child at a certain time every night can disrupt your sleep almost as much as the night terror you are trying to prevent. Lully Sleep Guardian is a device that takes the night shift for you so both you and your child can get a peaceful night’s sleep. Lully learns the perfect time to gently nudge your child with a vibration that interrupts the sleep cycle and prevents the onset of the night terror. A Stanford University study found that in just four weeks, Lully stopped up to 80% of sleep terrors in children using the device. That’s a game changer and can help you get more sleep until your child grows out of night terrors.

Summary

Night terrors in adults can be especially traumatizing for partners, especially the first few times they occur. Partners, while your beleaguered bedfellow will frighten you out of sleep, it is important to remember that your mate has no control over them and is as frightened as you are. Offering consolation and reassurance that you understand they are not purposefully trying to alarm you, is important to maintaining a harmonious relationship. If you or your partner finds the disruptions overwhelming, you should encourage them to consult with their physician.


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