What you need to know about night terrors

Like a bad dream on steroids – they may seem scary, but they aren’t worth losing sleep over.

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

Anya Hutton’s daughter Morgan (now five) spent years suddenly screaming, crying and flailing in her sleep. “It was heartbreaking — she would sob and yell. There was no way we could wake her up,” says the mother of two.

Night terrors like Morgan’s are frightening episodes during which kids may talk and have their eyes open, but are actually asleep, and remember nothing in the morning. Affecting about one in five children, terrors usually start around age three. Unlike nightmares, which are bad dreams during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, night terrors happen when a child transitions between sleep stages. “It’s like having a car and the gear shift gets stuck in neutral,” says Manisha Witmans, a paediatric sleep specialist in Edmonton.

Read more: Help! My daughter is having night terrors>

Night terrors range in length and frequency (some kids may only experience one or two, while others have them regularly) and get worse when a child is overtired, sick or in an unfamiliar bed. Hutton, for instance, could predict a terror when Morgan had an emotional day or missed her nap. When the terror is happening, don’t try to wake your child up, just gently reassure her and wait it out. (She might not register your presence.) Kids in the throes of a night terror will often flail around and could hurt themselves, so Witmans recommends clearing toys and objects away from the bed, and making sure kids don’t bonk their heads on furniture or the wall. Some children might even sleepwalk, a related condition.

If you’re worried about night terrors, mention them to your child’s doctor, who can assess if there’s an underlying condition such as sleep apnea, an ear infection or uncontrolled asthma. That was a possible trigger for Morgan: After she had her tonsils and adenoids out at age five, the terrors stopped. In most cases, night terrors diminish by school age and end by the teens. Despite the stress they cause parents, they pose no harm to kids.

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