Sleep terror disorder is a sleep disorder that can be described as causing a sudden arousal from deep sleep, followed by symptoms of extreme fear, or abject terror. Although this may sound like the description of a nightmare, sleep terrors (also referred to as night terrors) are quite different.
Sleep terrors are usually more intense than nightmares, cause greater anxiety and fear and may involve movement such as suddenly sitting up, kicking or flailing arms. Children don't wake up during or after night terrors. They are unaware of their surroundings and unresponsive during episodes - and typically have no memory of the episode the next day.
Night terrors usually occur early in the night, within 90 minutes of falling asleep. They happen during slow-wave or non-REM sleep phases. Nightmares, on the other hand, occur during REM (dream) sleep.
Sleep terror disorder is most often seen in children between the ages of 3 and 12, but it can occur at any age. . Research indicates that between one and six percent of kids will experience at least one night terror during childhood.
What Causes Sleep Terrors?
In spite of ongoing research, the causes of night terrors aren't crystal clear. Though studies indicate there are several factors involved, and the triggers can be vary between individuals.
Some researchers believe that night terrors are caused by a child's immature central nervous system. Others attribute the disorder to stress, anxiety, illness, sleep deprivation, some medications, and diet.
Like some other sleep disorders, sleep terror disorder seems to have a genetic component and often runs in families. Having a family history of night terrors can make you 10 times more likely to experience them.
Sleep Terror Disorder Symptoms
If your child has night terrors, he or she will most likely waken suddenly from deep sleep and be crying or screaming. You may hear mumbles and shouts and your child will act as though he or she is fighting with someone or something.
Your little one's eyes will likely be wide open but he or she will not fully conscious or awake. Sweating and an extremely rapid heartbeat (sometimes up to four times faster than normal) are also symptoms of sleep terror disorder.
It's usually not possible to comfort or console a child who is experiencing night terrors. He or she isn't awake and isn't aware of your presence. In fact, your child may fight you off or push you away - and not realize it. There are cases when some children to being held and reassured and its worth trying to see if it helps.
Night terrors lasts around 15 minutes, but can be as short as 5 minutes or last as long as 30. Generally, there is only one episode per night, but terrors may occur for several nights a week.
A child who has sleep terror disorder usually doesn't remember the episode. In fact, most children will go right back into deep sleep as soon as the night terrors are over, without ever waking up or being aware of what happened.
Needless to say, it can be quite terrifying for parents to witness their child having a night terror - and they don't forget it quickly.
Living With Sleep Terror Disorder
For adults with this disorder, a doctor may be willing to prescribe medication to help if the episodes are so severe or frequent that they significantly affect quality of sleep.
Some research has been done using sleep-inducing medications/hypnotics such as Diazepam. However, there has been very little research done on using medications to treat children with sleep terrors.
As there is no recognized cure for sleep terrors in children, they and their parents simply have to live with the episodes. In most cases, the terrors will diminish over time and disappear by the time the child enters adolescence.
However, some children may never totally outgrow this disorder. Although, over time, episodes are likely to decrease in frequency and severity.
All parents can do is to make sure that their child isn't able to hurt themselves during an episode. Some children may get out of bed, flail around, or even run away from imaginary terrors. Therefore, removing objects like bedside lamps or rearranging furniture can help make the bedroom a bit safer.
If holding your child seems to help, feel free to do so. Yet, if it makes him or her more agitated, don't force physical contact or try restraint. Do stay close to make sure your little one doesn't get hurt and that settles back to sleep when the episode is over.
Using a baby-monitor or intercom system to hear if your child wakes due to night terrors can be reassuring for parents.
If your child continues to have sleep terrors and the disorder is negatively affecting his or her health and development, consult your doctor.
An office evaluation and a sleep study could help determine if there are any physical causes for the night terrors such as night-time seizures, where doctor's treatment is necessary.
Although sleep terror disorder can be disruptive and scary, the advice above may help to alleviate some of the worry involved, and make sure your child is kept safe.