It's 9:30 p.m., and 6-year-old Matthew screams out from his bedroom. His mother rushes in and sees him walking around and flailing his arms. His eyes are open, and he looks distressed. She tries to shake him awake, but he keeps screaming and doesn't respond to anything she's saying. He seems confused and can't communicate with her. Ten minutes later, he walks over to his bed, crawls in, closes his eyes, and goes back to sleep.
Matthew was having a night terror, a type of sleep disorder called a "parasomnia." These episodes, which look like nightmares but aren't, are most commonly experienced by kids between the ages of 4 and 12 but can happen at younger ages. They're more frightening for parents than they are for kids, who don't have any memory of them the next morning.
Night terrors (also called sleep terrors) typically occur one to two hours after a child falls asleep -- before the child enters REM sleep (the deepest type). Some kids cry and move around in their bed during a night terror; others get up and walk around. "They look at you like they're awake, but they're not really awake," says Rachel Busman, Psy.D., clinical psychologist with the Child Mind Institute's Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center in New York City. A child may also sleepwalk or sleep talk during a night terror.
Nightmares, on the other hand, occur during REM sleep. The child truly awakens and may call out, "Mommy, I had a bad dream." He also may have trouble going back to sleep afterward due to the dream's scary content. And he'll usually remember it the next day.
Many children have one or a few night terrors and then never have one again. Other children have several during childhood. Typically, they're outgrown before adolescence.
Night terrors are more common in boys than girls and tend to run in families. The cause is unknown, but they can be triggered by stress, sleep deprivation, and fatigue. Sometimes they're accompanied by a fever.
"There's usually nothing dangerous about having a night terror, unless the child hurts himself while he's walking around," says Dr. Busman. So the best thing parents can do when they happen is to make sure the child is safe: Remove objects from the floor that he may trip over, close the door to his bedroom so he can't walk out and fall down the stairs, and lock windows so they can't be opened.
Avoid trying to shake the child awake, advises Dr. Busman. It usually doesn't work and even if he does wake up, it could take him longer to settle down and go back to sleep. "Instead, speak softly and calmly, and gently lead him back to bed. You just need to wait it out."
Night terrors are usually not a cause for concern, Busman emphasizes, but lack of sleep can be. Putting a child to bed earlier may help prevent them, since sleep deprivation can be a contributing factor. If the night terrors are frequent and continue to cause disruption to your child's (or your family's daily life), she recommends speaking to your pediatrician.
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