Let's Learn About: Night Terrors
Pediatrician says they may be caused by brain's 'panic center'
You hear it coming from your son’s room – the screaming, the crying. He may have even gotten out of bed and run to the living room and is now pacing back and forth.
You try to talk some sense into him, but it’s almost as if you aren’t there. He’s babbling gibberish.
His heart rate is up – probably not as high as yours. Why is he acting this way? Is something wrong? Is he even awake? You attempt to talk to him, wake him up, anything - but he’s not paying attention. You lead him back to his bedroom and lay him back in bed. The next morning, he’s happy, playful ... and doesn’t remember a thing.
So what happened? A night terror happened.
I hear about these all the time at my office in Willow Park. It’s pretty common. But just because it’s common doesn’t mean it isn’t super scary to see in person.
Look up “child night terror” videos on YouTube and you’ll see what I’m talking about. The babbling, sitting up in bed, screaming, sweating, crying, wandering the halls. Sleep walking and talking is very common. It’s very easy to feel helpless as a parent in this situation. They can last up to 30 minutes!
We’re not totally sure why they get them – it’s probably the over-arousal of the brain’s “panic center” after the first 2-3 hours of deep sleep – but it’s usually genetic. Eighty percent of kids who have night terrors have a parent who had them, too.
I usually find kids who are going through major growth spurts have them more frequently – maybe there is a link between brain growth and night terrors?
They’re more common in boys, but happen in girls too. They’re most often happening between ages 4 and 12, but I’ve seen them in younger kids too.
They’re different from nightmares. Nightmares tend to happen at different times in the night, in different stages of REM sleep. Kids remember nightmares – they have visual images they can recall – but they have no memory of night terrors.
If your child gets night terrors, please try not to worry (easier said than done, I know). It’s always fine to talk to us about them and we will mostly reassure you that they will get better, and your child will outgrow them.
If your child has a night terror, know that they likely don’t even know you’re there in the room. You have to patiently wait it out.
Move anything on the floor that might get in his way so he doesn’t get injured. Put yourself between the child and anything that could potentially hurt him (a tall dresser, for example).
Ways that you can reduce how often they’re happening is to assess your kiddo’s stress level. Sometimes these happen more often when a child is under stressors like a parents’ divorce, or starting a new school, or new sport. Talk about these stressors during the day.
Establish a good bedtime routine. Bath, teeth brushing, and a book is always a favorite at our house. Try to avoid screens for an hour before bedtime.
Dr. Diane Arnaout joined the Cook Children's Willow Park practice in 2011. Dr. Arnaout was born and raised in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She served as a leader on the medical education committees during her internship and residency in pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center in the Texas Medical Center at Houston, Texas.
To conncet with Cook Children's Willow Park pediatrics, please follow them on facebook https://www.facebook.com/ccwillowpark