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Night terrors are very dramatic awakenings that happen during the first few hours of sleep at night. They can be very distressing to watch, as your child may seem extremely disturbed and upset, and it is very hard to console them. Night terrors are not the same as nightmares.
About five per cent of children
have night terrors; they usually happen in preschool- and primary school-aged children. Night terrors will not have any long-term effects on your child, and your child will most likely grow out of them.
Overtiredness and not enough sleep can make night terrors more frequent.
A child who is having a night terror is stuck halfway between being asleep and awake. They are awake enough to get out of bed, talk or scream and have their eyes open; but they are asleep in that they do not respond to a parent trying to console them. They usually don’t remember the
episode in the morning.
Often there is a history of night terrors or sleep walking in the family. Night terrors happen in healthy children, and are a part of normal development. They are not usually associated with serious emotional or psychological problems. There is no link with epilepsy. Night terrors may
become worse with illness and fevers, or if your child becomes very worried about something.
Night terrors are different to nightmares. Nightmares are scary dreams that usually happen in the second half of the night, during dream sleep. During a nightmare, your child wakes up fully and can instantly remember the frightening dream. You can settle your child when
they have had a nightmare, and your child will usually remember the waking in the morning.
While there is very little you can do during a night terror episode, there are some general strategies for helping children who get night terrors.
If your child is going away overnight to camp or a friend's place, warn the people caring for your child that they may have night terrors. Give them a copy of this fact sheet. Make sure that your child has a good sleep routine before going away.
Your child may need to see your GP if:
Your GP may refer you to a paediatrician or sleep specialist.
Will medication help my child
sleep better and help prevent night terrors?
We do not recommend giving your child medication to help them sleep better. Developing good sleep habits and a good bedtime routine is the best way to help your child sleep better.
My child seems extremely
disturbed when she has night terrors. Is there a possibility a mental issue is
causing the sleep terrors?
While night terrors are frightening for adults to witness and they may seem like your child is having a severe emotional or mental disturbance, night terrors are not usually associated with serious emotional or psychological problems. If your child’s
behaviour is worrying during the day, see your GP for advice.
Developed by The Royal Children's Hospital General Medicine department. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers. We acknowledge the input of RCH consumers and carers.
Reviewed March 2018.
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