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Night terrors are an inherited disorder in which a child tends to have dreams during deep sleep from which it is difficult to awaken. These dreams can cause a child to shout, thrash and get out of bed. Night terrors can sometimes be disturbing to parents and caregivers, even though they are harmless to the child.
Unlike nightmares, after a night terror a child is not able to remember the dream when he or she awakens in the morning. Night terrors usually occur within two hours after bedtime. Each episode ends on its own during sleep.
Night terrors are inherited, meaning a child gets the disorder from his or her parents and the condition runs in families. They occur in 2% of children and usually are not caused by psychological stress. Being overtired can trigger night terrors. Sometimes, recurring night terrors are a symptom of other sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea.
About 2% of children have night terrors. The problem usually disappears by age 12 or sooner. The condition often runs in families, so children of parents who had night terrors may be more likely to develop them.
Usually no testing is required to diagnose night terrors. Doctors can make the diagnosis after learning about your child’s sleep history. Sometimes, we ask families to keep a sleep log to write down when their child goes to bed, wakes up and when night terrors happen. In rare cases, we may do a sleep study to confirm that these are night terrors and not nightmares or seizures.
Our sleep specialists can determine whether these events are common night terrors or whether they are a symptom of a more serious sleep disorder like sleep apnea. Doctors at Children’s Colorado will combine the information they learn from your child’s sleep history, physical exam, and other tests, like a sleep study when necessary, to make the diagnosis.
Treatment of night terrors is focused on calming your child back to sleep and keeping him or her safe during the episode. Parents can also follow some night terror prevention strategies. Doctors rarely use medication to treat night terrors in children.
Follow these steps to help your child through a night terror:
Try to help your child return to normal, calm sleep.
Keep your child from becoming overtired. Sleep deprivation is the most common trigger for night terrors.
If your child has frequent night terrors, you might try the “prompted awakening” technique to readjust your child’s sleep patterns at the time the night terrors usually happen. Prompted awakening techniques include:
Night terrors are rarely, but sometimes, a symptom triggered by medical problems, including a disorder of dream sleep, a seizure or a movement disorder. At Children’s Hospital Colorado, we are experts at diagnosing and treating night terrors, whether they are part of a more complicated sleep disorder or the common condition found in childhood. Often, we can help patients and their families learn to manage common night terrors after a meeting with our sleep psychologist.
At the Children’s Colorado Sleep Center, we have providers known internationally for their expertise in sleep research and sleep treatments. The team is made up of sleep specialists trained in different aspects of sleep treatments, including sleep physicians who specialize in children’s breathing issues and children’s ear-nose-and throat problems, a sleep-specialized psychologist, two sleep-specialized nurse practitioners, a sleep-specialized respiratory therapist and a dedicated sleep nurse.
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