child with night terrors

Hi Jennifer—

The good news is that your daughter appears to have outgrown her spontaneous occasions of night terrors, which as you and your husband know, can really upset a household. Now she only has them when you disturb or awaken her—and there definitely is a lesson to be learned here!

Night terrors are common in small children, affecting about 2% of the population, or 1 out of every 50 children, ages 3-11. When children switch from deep to light sleep, they often experience an arousal that awakens them briefly. Sometimes though, their brains can get “stuck” between waking and sleeping. This “half-awake, half asleep” state is what causes the curious behaviors seen in night terrors. Children act awake—they may sit up in bed, talk, or even run wildly around the room—but they still are deeply asleep. Because they are asleep, they are unable to think clearly, which causes them to panic and become disoriented.

Sleep talking, walking, and bed wetting all are related to night terrors, through their association with deep, non-dreaming sleep. Sleep walking and talking, for example, are “half-awake” states—without the panic and fear associated with night terrors. Bed wetting also is a by-product of a sleepy brain. Studies show that most bed-wetter’s bladders function normally, and do send an appropriate signal to the brain that they are full, and need to be emptied. If a child is an especially deep sleeper, however, the brain can fail to respond.

Because your daughter is now switching sleep stages normally, without waking up confused, special care should be exercised not to wake her when you check in on her during the night, or if you attempt to move her. Either of these stimuli can induce a night terrors episode, as your child will struggle to respond to you, but will be unable to fully awaken. To reduce the chance of night terrors, put your daughter to bed before she gets drowsy, so you won’t have to move her once she’s asleep. When you check on her, refrain from adjusting her covers or touching her physically, which might cause an arousal.

Most parents discover that night lights help reduce night terrors. If children can see the outlines of their rooms when they arouse, they usually are reassured, and return peacefully to sleep. If they are left in the dark, children can easily become disoriented, and panic.

Back to the original question
Back to Walking, Talking & Terrors page

To access our Dreamcast Library, log in, then click here.
Not registered? Click here.

It's free! No fees or subscriptions.