Question: My very bright, mature, lovable, happy 5-year-old son has begun to experience what I have been told is called "night terror". He is a very happy child during the day, definitely with a more intense personality, but very healthy and well-adjusted and extremely bright. At night, he will wake up in terror, screaming, cowering in the corner, looking at me or my husband with terror, eyes opened wide, with real fear, and then a few minutes later will calm down and have no recollection of feeling afraid. This behavior scares me and almost seems psychotic as if something is possessing/terrorizing my child. We have a healthy, normal, safe home BH and the same goes for school. My son feels comfortable (to the best of my knowledge) discussing his worries or if someone/something is bothering him and I do not see a real terrifying trigger. Does the panel view this nighttime behavior as a sign of emotional/psychological issues? And how would you suggest dealing with the situation?

Indeed, your son sounds like a normal and well-adjusted child. Your description certainly sounds like a night terror, which is a relatively common sleep disruption in children. Although they seem terrifying at the time, they are usually not a cause for concern or a sign of a deeper issue. 

During a night terror, a child might suddenly sit up, scream, breathe quickly, sweat, flail, and/or act very scared. The child may appear awake, but is not aware of others and usually won't talk. After a few minutes, the child will usually calm down and go back to sleep. 

Night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system during sleep. Sleep happens in stages. Dreams (including nightmares) take place during the lighter rapid eye movement (REM) stage. Night terrors happen during the deep, non-REM, sleep. They usually take place about 1-3 hours after a child falls asleep when sleep transitions from different stages of the deep non-REM. While this transition is usually smooth, it can evoke a sudden fear reaction, which is a night terror. Because he is in a deep sleep, it will be difficult to wake him and he probably won't remember the episode in the morning. 

Night terrors usually happens with kids between 3 and 12 years old. Most of the time, they disappear by adolescence as the nervous system matures. Night terrors tend to run in families. While most of the time they have no specific cause, they can sometimes result from stress, fever, overtiredness, excessive caffeine, or reactions to medications. 

The best way for parents to prevent and manage night terrors is to reduce child's stress and make sure that they receive enough sleep. When it happens, parents should wait patiently and make sure that child doesn't get hurt while moving around. Realize that within a few minutes, child will usually settle down and go back to regular sleep. Waking a child during a night terror usually doesn't work and just causes him to be confused and take longer to fall back asleep. 

If the above doesn't seem to describe your child or if it is seriously impacting his life, it is wise to visit your pediatrician. The pediatrician can accurately diagnose, rule out other disorders that may cause night terrors, and, if necessary, prescribe something that may enhance sleep.  


Originally appeared in Yated Neeman