What causes night terrors and how can you stop them?

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Night terrors are very different from nightmares and are most common in children between the ages of three and eight years old. The difference is, they occur during deep sleep, as opposed to rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is when nightmares are experienced. Although most children will grow out of them, adults can also experience night terrors and similar symptoms.

According to the NHS, “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.”

Night terror episodes can last up to 15 minutes and can be uncomfortable and distressing if you are a witness to one. It is advisable not to intervene or interact with the person experiencing the night terror as you may agitate them further. Keeping an eye on them but not interacting with them will ensure they stay safe.

What causes night terrors?

Night terrors can be triggered by a number of factors, such as feelings of anxiety, over excitement, sudden noise, tiredness, fever or different types of medication. If deep sleep is disturbed it can cause the person to become upset or scared, thus triggering a night terror. They are more common in children with a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking.

Adults who have night terrors may experience them due to different medical conditions such as migraines, obstructive sleep apnoea, mental health conditions and restless legs syndrome. They are still caused by a disturbance during deep sleep and will usually last for a few minutes.

What to do if you witness a night terror?

A night terror does not cause harm to the person experiencing it and the NHS state, “The best thing to do if your child is having an episode of night terrors is to stay calm and wait until they calm down. Don’t intervene or interact with them, unless they’re not safe.”

They are not pleasant to witness, but waking the person may agitate them and they may not recognise you during the episode. If the person wakes and then quickly returns to a deep sleep, it is likely it will happen again, so it is best to make sure they are fully awake before they go back to sleep.

As they generally won’t remember the night terror, it is best not to discuss the episode in a negative light that will make them feel anxious or worried.

How can you stop night terrors?

Discuss how your child is feeling and find out if anything is making them anxious or worried. If you can address what is causing them distress, you can talk through it and put their mind at ease, which will hopefully allow them to sleep more peacefully.

Sticking to a consistent and relaxing routine can help reduce the likelihood of a night terror. Screens, such as tablets, phones and TVs, should be kept out of the bedroom, and light and noise disturbance kept to a minimum.

If your child is having frequent episodes at a specific time of the night, you can try to wake them up 10-15 minutes before the time when they tend to have night terrors. This will disrupt their sleeping pattern and hopefully prevent a night terror from occurring.

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