What Causes Night Terrors?
Night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep. This may happen because the CNS (which regulates sleep and waking brain activity) is still maturing. Some kids may inherit a tendency for this over-arousal — about 80% who have night terrors have a family member who also experienced them or sleepwalking (a similar type of sleep disturbance).
Night terrors have been noted in kids who are:
- overtired or ill, stressed, or fatigued
- taking a new medication
- sleeping in a new environment or away from home
Night terrors are relatively rare — they happen in only 3-6% of kids, while almost every child will have a nightmare occasionally. Night terrors usually occur between the ages of 4 and 12, but have been reported in kids as young as 18 months. They seem to be a little more common among boys.
A child might have a single night terror or several before they cease altogether. Most of the time, night terrors simply disappear on their own as the nervous system matures.
Coping With Night Terrors
Night terrors can be very upsetting for parents, who might feel helpless at not being able to comfort or soothe their child. The best way to handle a night terror is to wait it out patiently and make sure the child doesn't get hurt by thrashing around. Kids usually will settle down and return to sleep on their own in a few minutes.
It's best not to try to wake kids during a night terror. Attempts usually don't work, and kids who do wake are likely to be disoriented and confused, and may take longer to settle down and go back to sleep.
There's no treatment for night terrors, but you can help prevent them. Try to:
- reduce your child's stress
- establish and stick to a bedtime routine that's simple and relaxing
- make sure your child gets enough rest
- prevent your child from becoming overtired by staying up too late
Understanding night terrors can reduce your worry — and help you get a good night's sleep yourself. But if night terrors happen repeatedly, talk to your doctor about whether a referral to a sleep specialist is needed.
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