Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are a type of parasomnia that consists of episodes of screaming, flailing, intense crying, and fear. The disorder commonly affects children ages 3-12 and is recurrent in nature. Children who suffer from sleep terrors may also sleepwalk and talk in their sleep.
About one to six percent of children experience sleep terrors. Boys and girls are equally affected by the disorder. Fortunately, most children outgrow the disorder by adolescence, but it can also continue into adulthood. Approximately two percent of adults suffer from sleep terrors.
Many people mistake sleep terrors with common nightmares, but nightmares occur during the dream period of sleep, or REM sleep, while night terrors occur during stage 4, the deepest phase of sleep.
Sleep terrors are characterized by symptoms including screaming, sweating, heavy breathing, kicking, thrashing, rapid heart rate and/or staring wide-eyed.
In children, sleep terrors generally occur during the first third of a sleep period, or approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep. For adults, sleep terrors can occur at any time of the night. Typically, the episodes last for 1-2 minutes, but it can take up to 30 minutes for the sufferer to relax and return to sleep completely.
People experiencing sleep terrors are often mistaken for being awake because their eyes are wide open or they sit up straight in bed during an episode.
However, unlike people having nightmares, people experiencing sleep terrors are difficult to rouse and are unresponsive to stimuli. When they wake up in the morning, they usually have no recollection of the event, but they may remember bits and pieces of their dreams.
What Causes Sleep Terrors?
Sleep terrors often run in the family. Moreover, many adults who suffer from sleep terrors also have a history of depression, bipolar disorder, or anxiety disorders.
In children, however, the disorder doesn’t seem to be related to any mental disorders. Sleep terrors are also linked to sleep deprivation, head injury, obstructive sleep apnea, medications, stressful life events, and fever.
When to Seek Treatment
Sleep terrors usually aren’t a cause for concern, but if they become more frequent, disrupt sleep, or lead to injury or dangerous behavior, seek a doctor’s advice. A doctor will perform tests to determine whether another disorder is causing the sleep terrors.
Tests that a doctor may perform include an electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures brain activity, and a polysomnogram or sleep study, which charts your heartbeat, brain waves, and breathing while you are sleeping.
Precautions that you can take at home to reduce the frequency of sleep terrors include maintaining a consistent bedtime routine and eliminating sources of sleep disturbance. You should also remove any objects or furniture from your bedroom that could cause injury during an episode of sleep terrors.