Everyone has had nightmares before. If your child wakes up crying and scared, it is usually because they dreamed about a monster or something scary. Not everyone though has experienced night terrors. A night terror is entirely different from a nightmare, so let’s discuss the differences.
A nightmare is during Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep, which is a light stage of sleep. This is why if scared enough, a person can wake up from these and recall most of what occurred in the dream/nightmare. A night terror occurs during the deep sleep, so the child is not awake during the outbursts and occurrences of a night terror.
The deepest stage of sleep usually occurs 2-3 hours after falling asleep. Many times, a night terror occurs if there is a fast transition between REM sleep and deep sleep. This transition is normally smooth so no one knows the transition is happeneing. However, if it is too fast, which most often occurs when a child is overtired, sick, or stressed, it can frighten a child and cause these lashing outs.
Sometimes a night terror can seem like a nightmare at first, so let’s identify some distinguishing characteristics of a night terror.
• A night terror usually occurs in children 3-12 years old (however can be seen as early as 1 year old)
• A night terror can last up to 15-30 minutes
• A child will suddenly scream, sit straight up, open their eyes, and/or start thrashing around and hitting during a night terror
• If woken from a night terror, the child is confused and does not know anything happened and cannot recall any dream or anything that made them scared
• Those with night terrors are more likely to sleepwalk and sleeptalk later in life
Night terrors only occur in about 5% of children, and are a little more common in boys than in girls. Some of the cries can seem realistic and especially if your child’s eyes are open, it is hard to tell what is happening at first. So trying to ask your child to say who you are is a good way to tell if they are really awake from a nightmare or still asleep having a night terror.
If a child is woken from a night terror, it can take a long time for them to return to sleep, so ideally if the child and everyone else is safe and free from risk of harm, then it is best to not wake them and wait for them to finish and lay back down on their own.
Preventing night terrors is best done by having good sleep hygiene. This means having a regular bedtime routine, limiting caffeine during the day, and ensuring enough sleep during a 24 hour period.
Jennifer Adair, M.D., was born and raised in Mobile. She joined Children’s Medical Group in July 2013 and currently practices at their Airport office. Jennifer and her husband, Cory, reside in Mobile with their son, Finn, and their three dogs, Barkley, Fitz, and Roo.