Pediatric Night Terrors

 Out of a dead sleep, she clamorously screamed. Her eyes were wide and her face blank. She was awake, it seemed, but unresponsive and her little body crashed violently against the rails of her crib. The soothing sound of a voice she knew from before birth, only seemed to aggravate her fearful state.

Her parents several attempts to calm their disoriented child were unsuccessful. The child became sweaty and her heart-rate severely increased. Fifteen minutes of the parents watching in horror, passed. Then, miraculously, the child simply closed her eyes and became the picture-perfect portrait of a calm, peaceful sleep. Her parents loved to watch her sleep, now, more than ever.

This is an example of a night terror. Children experiencing this sleep disorder often seem awake. Their eyes may be open, they sit up straight, and move violently, some older children also sleep walk. Technically, the child is still in a deep sleep. A person, who actively witnesses a night terror, will most likely be frightened. It seems as though the child is in an extreme amount of pain or that they are experiencing fear.

According to, night terrors happen in three percent of children age 18 months to 12 years. The cause for these frightening presentations is unknown, but there are several ways they can worsen or be brought on. These include stress, new medications, sleeping in a different place, or over-tiredness. Children, who have experienced them before have them more often when their normal circumstance changes.

Children affected by this sleep disorder are otherwise healthy and happy children. It has been biologically speculated that an immature central nervous system, enlarged adenoids or genetics could cause these night disturbances but it has not been proven.

If your child is experiencing night terrors, there are several ways to help deal with or eliminate them. Due to the various circumstances that can set off a night terror, it is beneficial to the child to have a regular routine.

Make sure that your child is on a consistent sleeping schedule, and also follow a similar routine before actually putting them to sleep at night. For example, you could have them take a bath, and then read a favorite book or even sing a favorite nursery rhyme. Having their night routine being as relaxing as possible may have some significance in treating night terrors.

Nightmares and night terrors are different. A nightmare is remembered after waking up, and while it is occurring a person does not actively participate in it. Also, after waking up from a nightmare, or in the middle of it, the person is consolable and communicative.

The typical duration of each episode is three to fifteen minutes. Afterwards, the children have no recollection and they fall back to sleep. Parents become more affected, from watching, than the child who is actually experiencing it.

Some children have only a few occurrences and others have them for years according to Dr. Stephen Krizar, a family practice physician. Children tend to experience them less as they age. For children who are experiencing them, it is also required that you make sure they are in a safe place so they do not hurt themselves. If your child is still sleeping in a crib, do not take them out when it happens, and make sure there is cushion around them says Joy Kipp, a pediatric nurse.

For parents, the main concern is how to put an end to these terrifying awakenings. Many parents become upset because they cannot calm their child, but in all reality the child does not even know it is happening. The best way to conquer and handle night terrors is to understand how they occur.

V. Mark Durand, Doctor, Author and Professor of Psychology at the University of South Florida, explains that the brain is like a computer. In order to stop a disturbance, you must re-boot. Night terrors happen in a deep stage of sleep, and usually within the first half of the night.

In Dr. Durand’s case study, he found that waking up the patients 30 minutes before their usual night terror resolved all occurrences, over a period of 12 months. By waking the child up before he enters the stage of sleep when most night terrors occur, the brain is being kept from entering that stage throughout the night.

For parents experiencing re-occurring night terrors, 15 minutes can seem like an eternity. Waking a child before it happens is natural, non-medicated, and a beneficial way of eliminating them.

Photo from

Durand, V. Mark. “Treating Sleep Terrors in Children with Autism.” Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions. 2002.  Hammel Institute on Disabilites and Sage Publications.

Durand, V. Mark and Mindell, Jodi A. “Behavioral Intervention for Childhood Sleep Terrors.”  Behavior Therapy (705-715). 1999.


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