What Parents Should Know About Night Terrors

by Angela Weight

What Parents Should Know About Night Terrors

Demystifying those Mid-Sleep Panic Attacks that Plague Some Children
It’s been four years ago now; but Carol Tyler remembers her daughter Lauren’s first night terror like it was yesterday. “My husband and I woke around midnight to Lauren screaming. We rushed into her bedroom to find her thrashing around, kicking, shrieking, and moaning. And she was drenched in sweat. We tried everything to calm her down, but she didn’t seem to hear us and was looking right past us. Her eyes were open but she was clearly not awake. After a few minutes, Lauren calmed down on her own, turned over, and went right back to sleep. We stood there staring at her, shocked, wondering what on Earth had just taken place. She didn’t make a peep the rest of the night.”


Between ages three and five, Lauren went on to have episodes like this about once a week. She’s one of thousands of children who suffer from night terrors, a periodic sleep disorder aptly named because it seems that the child is terrified and panicking, even fighting an invisible foe. The name rings true for parents who witness them as well.


Not to be Confused with Nightmares
According to Dr. William Kohler, a sleep institute medical director, night terrors are quite different from nightmares. “Night terrors typically occur during the first third of the sleep cycle during the non-REM (rapid eye movement) phase. For the most part, the child has no memory of them next day. Nightmares usually happen much later, while the body is in the REM sleep phase and can often be recalled after waking.”


While nightmares cause very little physical reaction, night terrors are characterized by violent, often catatonic behavior, usually within a couple of hours after falling asleep. Dad Kevin Brown describes his two-year-old son Ryan’s night terrors as quite distressing. “Ryan will walk around the room, screaming, oblivious to our presence. He falls to the floor, thrashing, almost like he’s possessed. If we pick him up in an attempt to comfort him, he stiffens and pushes away. As quickly as the episode starts, it’s over. He just seems to ‘come to,’ settles down and falls back asleep. The worst part is seeing your child beyond upset and knowing there is really nothing you can do to comfort him or make it go away.”


Methods to the Madness
While baffled parents rack their brains to find a reason for these wee hour disturbances, it’s difficult to pinpoint the root cause. Their child seems perfectly normal and happy during the day, drifts off peacefully at bedtime. Suddenly, an hour or two later, they’re acting out their own personal horror film before an audience of shocked and helpless parents. What could possibly set off these violent incidents?


Dr. Kohler explains that most night terrors are caused by a disruption in the sleep cycle when the body has difficulty transitioning from one phase of sleep to the next. Something that might ordinarily cause a child to simply wake up will trigger a night terror instead. “It could be that he’s over-tired from not getting enough rest. He could have an illness or fever brewing in his system or his body could be reacting to a new medication. Also going to bed with a full bladder or sleeping in a different or noisy environment can be a factor.”


It’s in the Genes
Parents who suffered from night terrors as children will potentially have kids who are prone to them. A recent Canadian study that examined identical and fraternal twins found that among identical sets, there was a 68 percent chance that both twins would have the condition. Among fraternal twins, that likelihood dropped to 24 percent. The researchers concluded that heredity could be responsible for more than 40 percent of night terror cases.


The Stress Factor
Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician and author of Baby and Child Health, says that stress can play a role in the occurrence of night terrors as well. “Every kid has some stress in their lives, even the happiest children. If they’re starting school, moving to a new place, even if another child takes their toy away, it causes stress. If a child is thinking about something like this at bedtime, it may show up later in the form of a night terror.”


An Ounce of Prevention
While no medication is a proven cure, many parents fend off impending night terrors with a treatment called scheduled waking. “If you know that your child will have an episode predictably at 1 AM, go and wake them up at 12:50 to disrupt the sleep pattern,” says Dr. Kohler. “Also taking them to use the bathroom can help them to settle into a more peaceful, long-lasting slumber.”


Try to get your child to sleep earlier and make sure he winds down properly. Soothing rituals like reading a story, singing lullabies and saying prayers before bed help to foster feelings of security. It’s also important to avoid over-stimulation, like exciting TV shows or games at night.


Is There a Diet Link?
Anecdotal evidence shows that some kids who experience night terrors may have sensitivities to food coloring and additives, in particular Red Dye #40 and MSG. That’s what Miryam Segal found when, in desperation, she turned to the Internet to learn more about dealing with her daughter’s frequent night terrors.


“I had nothing to lose and figured I would try taking the additives out of her diet to see if it would eliminate the night terrors. I was shocked that almost every candy on the market has red dye in it, and almost every ‘flavored’ food like chips, soup mixes, and ketchup contains MSG or another glutamate like hydrolyzed, autolyzed, or tortula yeast.


When we took the additives out of my daughter’s diet, the night terrors stopped. On the odd occasion that she has had a night terror since then, I can pinpoint it to her eating something containing Red Dye or MSG.”


Not to Worry, Parents …
“The main thing to remember is that in most cases, night terrors are not dangerous or harmful to the child,” continues Shu. “Most children grow out of them on their own by adolescence. The hardest part is seeing your child in obvious distress and not being able to comfort them.”


Safety Tips for Restful Nights


While night terrors are normally considered benign, it’s important to make your child’s bedroom a safe environment to prevent possible injuries during an episode.


  • For little ones still sleeping in cribs, use a bumper pad to cushion the slats and keep the railing locked in  the “up” position so that they don’t topple over the side.
  • Never allow a child prone to night terrors to sleep on a top bunk.
  • Use safety gates to prevent your child from leaving the bedroom.


“As strange as it sounds, we got used to Lauren’s late night howling,” laughs Carol Tyler. “We’d always check to make sure she was safe, but knowing that she wasn’t in any kind of pain and recalled nothing in the morning lessened our worries. Over time, the terrors occurred less frequently. Now they’re pretty much a thing of the past.”