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If a child wakes up at night with intense fear or panic, it could be night terrors. Help is available

What are night terrors?

Night terrors are a sleep disorder that can be worrying for both children and parents. It usually occurs in childhood in the early hours of the night and is characterized by intense fear or panic.

The child may scream, cry, gasp for air, and appear inconsolable. However, they are usually not fully awake and rarely remember the event the next day.

Although night terrors can be frightening to witness, they are usually harmless and children usually outgrow them. Understanding what night terrors are and how to deal with them can help families navigate through these challenging nights with greater calm and reassurance.

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Night terrors at different ages

Night terrors, or pavor nocturnus, often affect children. Studies show that around 6% of children aged 1-12 have experienced night terrors, usually peaking between ages 5-7. Symptoms vary with age, from screaming and disorientation to possible memory fragments of the episode. A stable sleep routine and a safe sleeping environment are central to management. In cases where night terrors affect daily life, professional help may be needed to address underlying causes.

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What are the symptoms of night terrors?

Symptoms of night terrors can include:

  • Sudden awakening with intense fear or panic
  • Screaming and crying
  • Increased heart rate and rapid breathing
  • Sweating
  • Sitting up or running around
  • Disorientation and confusion upon awakening
  • Resistance to attempts at comfort
  • The episode occurs only once per night
  • Unawareness of surroundings and interactions during the episode
  • No or limited memory of the episode the next day

Night terrors usually occur during the earlier phases of the sleep cycle, during non-REM sleep. Children with night terrors will not necessarily display every symptom.

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What can you do as a parent if your child has night terrors?

As a parent, dealing with night terrors can be challenging. Here are some strategies that can help:

  1. Remain calm: During an episode of night terrors, try to remain calm and comforting, even if your child seems inconsolable or does not recognize you.
  2. Ensure the child’s safety: Make sure the child’s sleeping environment is safe to prevent injuries. This may mean removing sharp objects or securing windows and doors.
  3. Avoid waking the child: Do not try to wake your child during an episode, as this can be difficult to do and can increase their confusion and anxiety.
  4. Create a calming routine: Make sure your child has a relaxed routine before bedtime to reduce stress and promote a calm transition to sleep. Encourage your child to use the bathroom before bedtime.
  5. Maintain a regular sleep schedule: Make sure your child goes to bed and wakes up at the same time every day, even on weekends, to promote regular sleep.
  6. Minimize stress: Try to minimize stress in your child’s life, as stress can contribute to night terrors.
  7. Observe patterns: If the night terrors occur at roughly the same time each night, try gently waking your child 15-30 minutes before the expected time to break the pattern.
  8. Talk to a professional: If night terrors are frequent, highly disruptive or continue to occur as your child gets older, consider consulting a pediatrician or child psychologist for further guidance and support. Some epileptic seizures may look similar to night terrors, so seek professional help if you have concerns.

Night terrors are part of a child’s development and are usually not a sign of a deeper problem. If you have concerns, do not hesitate to reach out for help.

12 common questions about night terrors in children

What are night terrors?

Night terrors in children are a sleep disorder that can be worrying for both children and parents. It usually occurs in the early hours of the night and is characterized by intense fear or panic. The child may scream, cry, gasp for air, and appear inconsolable, but is usually not fully awake and rarely remembers the event the next day.

Are night terrors different at different ages?

Night terrors are more common in younger children and tend to diminish as children get older.

Are night terrors dangerous?

Although night terrors can be frightening to witness, they are usually harmless and children tend to outgrow them.

What are the symptoms of night terrors?

Symptoms of night terrors include sudden awakening with panic, screaming, increased heart rate, sweating, disorientation, resistance to comfort, and often physical activity such as sitting up or running around. These episodes, lasting a few seconds to 10 minutes, occur once a night during non-REM sleep, and the child rarely remembers the event the next day.

What can parents do if their child has night terrors?

In the case of night terrors, it is important for parents to remain calm, ensure their child’s safety without waking them, and maintain a regular sleep routine. Consultation with a doctor or child psychologist can also be helpful to rule out underlying causes and get further advice.

My child screams hysterically at night, what should I do?

If a child is screaming hysterically at night, start by ensuring the child’s safety. Try to calm them down with a quiet voice without waking them up. If the episodes are recurring, it may be advisable to seek advice from a professional to rule out medical causes and to get support to manage the situation.

What is a child psychologist?

A child psychologist is a licensed professional with knowledge and experience in promoting the well-being and mental health of children and parents.

What does a child psychologist do?

Child psychologists offer therapy and counselling but also work with families, parents and schools to help support children’s mental health.

Can I see a child psychologist online?

Yes, it is possible to see a child psychologist online via video. We have several child psychologists who work digitally at Lavendla.

I am worried about my child’s night terrors, what should I do?

If your child’s night terrors are interfering with their daily lives or you are concerned that they may be a sign of an underlying medical condition, contact your family doctor or local clinic. Do not hesitate to reach out for help for yourself as well.

Do night terrors go away over time?

Night terrors are common in young children but usually resolve over time. Only 1-2% of adults have night terrors.

Where can I go if I or my child needs help from a child psychologist?

Child psychologists are usually available through referral from a family doctor or local clinic. At Lavendla we have experienced child psychologists who can also help.

How does treatment with a child psychologist work?

Seeking help from a child psychologist is an important step when a child is experiencing mental health difficulties or if you are having difficulties as a parent. Here is a brief overview of what treatment can look like:

1. Initial Assessment

An initial consultation involves the psychologist assessing needs through conversations with the child and parents.

2. Treatment plan

An individualized plan is developed based on the child’s specific situation and needs. Common approaches include play therapy for younger children, where play is used as a tool for expression and processing. Talk therapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are often used for older children, which focuses on changing negative thought patterns and behaviours. Other methods such as family therapy can also be helpful.

3. Parental counselling

Parents receive guidance and support to better help their child at home.

4. Monitoring and adjustment

The treatment plan is continuously evaluated and adjusted as needed to ensure the best possible outcome.

A first step in seeking help

It is important to remember that each child is unique, and therefore treatment may vary. Working together with a child psychologist can give you and your child the tools needed to manage emotions and behaviours in a healthy way. At Lavendla, we have child psychologists who can help make the difficult easier.

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Written by Ellen Lindgren

Licensed psychologist

Ellen is a licensed psychologist and has experience mainly in clinical psychology where she has worked with various conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, crises and trauma in primary care and psychiatry. She has also worked with research while studying in the US and with affective disorders and insomnia at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.