Night Terrors Differ from Nightmares

Unlike nightmares, they aren’t generally associated with stress or from watching a scary movie

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Awakening to the sound of a child screaming is upsetting to any parent, especially if the child cannot be readily roused.

That can indicate a night terror, which differs from a nightmare. Those who experience night terrors cannot easily be awakened. That is because they have entered rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, a deeper state of sleep than when one first falls asleep.

Normally, night terrors happen within an hour of falling asleep.

No parent wants to hear their child crying in the night. While rousing children from a night terror seems like a good idea, physician Steven Blatt, SUNY Upstate professor of pediatrics and director and medical director of the general pediatric division, said that it is both ineffective and unnecessary. If awakened from a night terror episode, children often feel temporarily confused, disoriented and irritable.

“With night terrors, you typically cannot wake up the child and they’ll have no memory of it,” Blatt said. “Trying to wake the child won’t do anything. It’s scary because you cannot wake them easily. Just keep them safe. They’ll typically go back to sleep. There’s not a lot to do for them.”

Some children thrash and move around during a night terror episode. Others may leave their beds, so it is important to ensure that they cannot hurt themselves.

With a nightmare, children awaken to call for help. They can usually tell what they dreamed and why they feel upset. Parents’ efforts to comfort them can readily lull them back to sleep within a few minutes.

Why night terrors happen is still not largely understood. Most of the time, they happen with young children.

“It could be due to stress or sleep deprivation, but sometimes we don’t really know what’s going on,” Blatt said. “An analogous situation could be sleep walking. It’s hard to find the cause.”

Night terrors represent a parasomnia condition like sleepwalking and sleep talking. As such, night terrors may run in families. Night terrors may happen when a child is undergoing a major change in development, such as when their language improves in a short period of time.

Night terrors, unlike nightmares, are not generally associated with watching a scary movie with an older sibling. Fortunately, children do not later remember what frightened them during a night terror episode and the experience will not bother them the next day.

In most cases, night terrors may last a few weeks before children outgrow them. If not, a consultation may be a good idea.

“Get them on a good schedule of 12 hours of sleep,” recommended pediatrician Megan Campbell, who practices at Madison Irving Pediatrics in Syracuse.

Since children tend to experience night terrors within the first hour of sleep, Campbell recommends that parents purposefully awaken their children after 30 minutes of sleep to prevent an incident. While waking a sleeping child seem counterintuitive for ensuring a good night’s rest, this strategy has proven successful in disrupting the sleep cycle and preventing night terrors. Most children at this age can easily fall back asleep from a peaceful awakening.

“If your kid is not a good sleeper, you have to weigh the risks and benefits,” she added. “The main contributor is lack of sleep and a good sleep routine. Night terrors is a phase; they’ll grow out it.”