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Navigate night terrors in adults & children

night terrors

Waking up shaking and sweating from a night terror can be a horrible experience, and it can be especially scary for a child.

Here, founder and Senior Sleep Expert Martin Seeley at MattressNextDay presents the difference between a night terror and a nightmare, night terror symptoms, what to do when witnessing someone experience a night terror and how to navigate them with children.

Night terrors are a type of parasomnia (an undesirable event during sleeping) that happens during one of the NREM stages of the sleep cycle, which involves physical signs of fear while the person is asleep. They’re also different to Sleep Paralysis, which leaves you feeling half awake, half asleep.

Night terrors are more likely to affect children rather than adults, but adults can experience them too, and most children outgrow their night terrors by the time they become teenagers.

There are several factors that can cause night terrors. Extreme tiredness, high levels of anxiety, PTSD, conditions such as Dementia and certain medications can all play a role in a person experience.

Night terror vs nightmare

Night terrors differ from nightmares in several ways: Night terrors mainly affect children, while nightmares affect both children and adults. Terrors tend to involve more violent physical symptoms, such as thrashing, shouting, screaming, as well as opening your eyes but being unable to be awakened. A nightmare tends to involve less movement.

Many children and adults don’t remember that they’ve experienced a night terror, while nightmares are more memorable. Nightmares will happen later in the night during REM sleep, while night terrors happen earlier in the night during the third stage of the sleep cycle in NREM sleep.

Symptoms of night terrors

Symptoms of night terrors will vary from person to person however, they include shouting, kicking/thrashing, sitting up and staring wide-eyed, sweating, dilated pupils and sleepwalking.

How long do night terrors last?

Night terrors usually happen around 3 hours after a child has fallen asleep when they are in the third stage of NREM sleep. The fight or flight area of their brain kicks in if they are partly awakened during this time, leading to overexcited brain activity that causes night terrors.

These episodes tend to last for around 10 minutes but can last up to 40 minutes for some people. There can also sometimes be multiple episodes in one night and can either happen rarely or as often as once or twice a month.

How to deal with night terrors for children

If your child is experiencing night terrors, you may feel better knowing that they often go away on their own. However, it can be very distressing to see your child so frightened, so there are things you can do to try to reduce the instances of night terrors occurring, such as:

  • Make sure that they have a calming bedtime routine, with no screens and gentle lighting.
  • Keep a sleep diary, either written by them or you. This includes things like what they ate during the day, the activities they did, and how they were feeling. 
  • Helping them to cope with anything that is causing them distress or anxiety.

When a night terror is occurring, there are steps you can take to help ease the situation:

·         Stay calm and wait for them to calm down.

·         Don’t try to move them unless they are at risk of harming themselves or others.

·         Don’t try to wake them up as this could upset them more if they fail to recognise you.

·         The NHS recommendation for night terrors is that if they have a night terror at the same time each night, try waking them up gently 15 minutes before that time to help curb the night terrors

How to deal with night terrors for adults

The best ways to help an adult deal with night terrors are like those for children:

·         Keep a sleep diary to help you establish any disruptive patterns.

·         Don’t try to wake up an adult having a night terror, as they become violent if they cannot recognise you.

·         Don’t try to restrain them unless they are a threat to themselves or others in your household.

·         Encourage them create a healthy sleep routine – our Ultimate Bedtime Routine can help

Understanding night terrors can help ease your concerns about your loved one and help you get a good night’s sleep yourself.

Seeking medical help may also help if you regularly experience night terrors. Specialists can work to determine the root cause of the terrors, establish if your family experiences sleep disorders and decipher any clues in your day to day lifestyle choices.

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