Sleep terrors are common. About 15 percent of children between the ages of 4 and 12 have them. Although the child will not remember anything about the outburst when they awaken, they can be frightening for those witnessing them. They usually are harmless and eventually will become less frequent and end without treatment.
During sleep terrors, the sleeping person reacts with terror. He or she may thrash around, scream, cry or even get out of bed and run around the room. The child may have a racing pulse and sweat. His or her eyes may be wide open, but the person is asleep. It may be difficult to awaken or comfort him or her.
Sleep terrors are very different from nightmares. Nightmares occur during the deep, rapid eye movement stage of sleep. The sleeping person may react to visual images and sounds they perceive in the nightmare. When a child wakes up from a nightmare, he or she often will remember parts of the scary dream.
In contrast, sleep terrors occur in the slow-wave sleep phase, the stage just before entering REM sleep. The sleeper is not yet dreaming or experiencing pictures and sounds in their mind. Instead, they are reacting to a deep sense of fear.
Some things can make sleep terrors more likely:
- If others in the family have experienced them
- Not getting enough sleep
- Being very tired
- Stress or anxiety
- Sleeping in a new place
- Lights or noise
- Past head injury
- A history of migraine headaches
- Abnormal breathing while sleeping, including snoring or episodes of apnea (when a sleeper stops breathing for an extended period)
What you can do to help
Children usually will outgrow sleep terrors without any treatment, but there are a few things parents can do to help:
- Make sure your child is in a safe place and cannot hurt himself or herself during outbursts. For example, make sure doors and windows are closed and locked and block staircases with a gate. Make sure there are no objects or cords on the floor that can cause your child to fall.
- Put your child to bed earlier and at the same time each night.
- Have quiet time before bed. Focus on relaxing activities like listening to music, reading a book or soaking in a warm tub.
- Eliminate foods and drinks that may disrupt sleep, such as sugar and caffeine.
- Make sure your child is sleeping in a dark, quiet room.
- Help your child cope with stress. Encourage your child to talk about things that make him or her worry. Help your child prioritize and don't sign them up for too many activities.
When to seek help
You may want to take your child to see a pediatric sleep specialist if:
- Episodes become more frequent or more severe
- Episodes lead to dangerous behavior or injury
- Episodes are disrupting the sleep of other family members
- You or your child are afraid to sleep
Request an appointment
Click here schedule an appointment with the Sleep Center at Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.