Night Terrors

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What are Night Terrors?

During night terrors (also called parvor nocturnus or incubus attacks) a person may scream and seem panicked, often while sitting in bed. The person experiencing the night terror may flail their limbs, thrash around, and might injure others. These attacks generally begin early in the night, up to three hours after falling asleep. Episodes last up to three minutes and usually end with the person returning to sleep. People experiencing a night terror won’t recall the episode later.

How Common are Night Terrors?

Both adults and children can get night terrors, but they are more common in children, especially in those age three to seven. Most children outgrow night terrors by age eight, but a few will continue to experience night terrors into adulthood. Night terrors have been reported in up to 7 percent of children and 2 percent of adults.

Symptoms of Night Terrors

Night terrors are sometimes confused with nightmares. However, unlike nightmares, night terrors involve motor activity (sitting up or thrashing) while nightmares usually don’t. And while nightmares are often remembered afterward, night terrors are not recalled later.

Other symptoms of night terrors include:

  • Sitting up in bed
  • Screaming or shouting
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Appearing frightened or distressed

What Causes Night Terrors?

Night terrors are caused by overarousal of the central nervous system during transitions between deep NREM sleep and lighter REM sleep.

Certain conditions make night terrors more likely:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Consuming caffeine
  • Fever and illness
  • Sleeping in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable environment

Sleep disturbances, including night terrors, are more commonly seen in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In adults, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may contribute to nightmares and night terrors.

Diagnosis

To diagnose night terrors, doctors start with a patient’s medical history and reported symptoms. A polysomnogram may be ordered to help determine whether an underlying sleep disorder is present.

Treatment

Like many parasomnias, night terrors are usually outgrown and don’t require treatment. While there is no cure for night terrors, parents can reduce their impact on the child and family, and may be able to reduce their frequency.

  • Help your child avoid stress and sleep deprivation
  • Encourage good sleep hygiene
  • Improve a child’s sleeping space with appropriate temperature, light and bedding
  • Reduce or eliminate caffeine
  • Wake your child up to a half hour before an expected night terror

Additional resources

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