Night terrors are a common sleep phenomenon which usually occur in children between the ages of 3 and 12 years. Though they appear scary, they are not harmful unless they are causing a severe lack of sleep. They are most commonly caused by an extended deep sleep stage or medication.

What is a night terror?

Despite what you may think, a night terror is very different from a nightmare. A nightmare is a frightening or distressing dream which is usually triggered by something which has evoked similar feelings during the day, such as watching a horror film or being stressed.

Night terrors are quite common in children with an estimated 1-6% of children experiencing them. The NHS describes the phenomenon by saying:

‘A child who experiences night terrors may scream, shout and thrash around in extreme panic, and may even jump out of bed. Their eyes will be open, but they’re not fully awake.’

They can also cause an increased heart rate (tachycardia), increased breathing rate (tachypnoea) and sweating, so it can be difficult to return to a relaxed sleep after a night terror episode. They usually last anywhere between a few seconds and a few minutes, but it can take a lot longer to fully recover from the effects.

Adults can also experience night terrors and will have the same symptoms. While it may be worrying to witness a night terror episode, it will not leave any lasting damage to the individual.

Child having a night terror

Read more: How To Talk To Your Children About Their Nightmares

What causes night terrors?

Night terrors tend to happen to people with a history of them in their family, along with sleepwalking. They happen for different reasons in both children and adults.

Night terrors usually occur due to a disturbance during deep sleep. According to KidsHealth.org, ‘Night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep.’

Though nightmares happen during REM sleep, night terrors happen during non-REM sleep, showing that they are very different. It is thought that the attack arises when we move from one type of sleep to another; when this transition is disturbed, a person can become upset or scared.

Night terrors in children:

Children with night terrors usually experience them when they are:

  • Very tired and have a long deep sleep stage
  • Suffering from a fever
  • Taking medication which affects the central nervous system (brain)
  • More likely to wake from deep sleep due to excitement or anxiety
  • Woken from deep sleep due to sudden noise
  • Woken due to a full bladder

What is the cause of night terrors in adults?

Adults who still suffer from occasional night terrors are more likely to have one due to an existing medical condition such as:

  • Stress/ trauma
  • An existing mental health condition
  • Medication such as antidepressants
  • Obstructive sleep apnoea
  • Restless legs syndrome
  • Migraines

As with children, night terrors in adults are caused by disturbance during deep sleep and usually last a few minutes.

man awake after a night terror

Related: The Severity of Sleep Walking and Possible Treatments

What to do if you see someone having a night terror

It can be tempting to intervene or wake a person up if they are suffering from a night terror, but this can heighten the stress. As the individual is not fully awake they may not recognise you, so you might add to their fear.

People who suffer from a night terror rarely remember the incident when they wake up, so acting distressed or shaking them out of the experience will only unsettle them more when they come around. When they wake up, they may feel disorientated or embarrassed, but they are unlikely to remember the full experience or what they ‘saw’ that made them scream.

The NHS advises to stay quiet, wait until they calm down and only step in to help if they are in danger of hurting themselves. For example, if your child sleeps in a cabin or bunk bed, you should probably stay near the edge in case they are at risk of falling.

They also say:

‘After the episode has ended, it’s safe to wake your child. If necessary, encourage them to use the toilet before settling them back to sleep. If your child returns quickly into deep sleep, they may have another episode. Making sure they’re fully awake before they go back to sleep can break this cycle.’

The same guidelines apply to adults. However, if you’re an adult who suffers from regular night terrors you should see your GP, as they could be caused by a specific traumatic event. If this is the case, counselling or other psychological treatments could help.

How can you prevent your child from having night terrors?

Since night terrors are often caused by anxiety during the day, the first thing to address or rule out the day after a night terror is any worries your child might be having. Addressing what the upset is and talking through it may enable them to sleep more soundly and eradicate the likelihood of further episodes. But always ensure that you discuss the night terror in a way that won’t scare them, as this could just add to their anxiety, keeping the cycle going.

Bedtime routine is also extremely important. Give your child a warm bath and read them a soothing story before bed to put their mind at rest. It is also advisable not to have a TV in your child’s bedroom, as they could potentially switch on to a show that will give them nightmares or further fuel their anxiety. Inhibiting any noise or light disruption which can delay melatonin production will give them a better chance of a sound sleep.

Helping your child from becoming overtired can also lessen the chances of night terrors. This can be done by maintaining a long enough sleep every night and prohibiting the number of physical activities done during the day.

Woman reading bedtime story to child

Read more: What Is A Normal Bedtime For Your Child?

Waking routine

If your child is having regular night terrors, you may be able to break the cycle by waking them at carefully timed intervals.

WebMD advises:

  • Note how many minutes the night terror occurs from your child’s bedtime
  • Awaken your child 15 minutes before the expected night terror
  • Keep them awake and out of bed for 5 minutes. You may want to take them to the bathroom to check if they need to use it
  • Continue the routine for a week

This should break the cycle of their sleep pattern and therefore the night terror episodes should stop. Waking them for only 5 minutes shouldn’t disrupt their sleep quality too much.

If symptoms of night terrors persist always consult your GP.

Having other issues with your sleep? Visit our Sleep Problems section for help and advice.