Fright Night: Is It a Night Terror?

You’re sound asleep when you suddenly wake, filled with dread. You’re scared enough that you might sit up straight, shout, or scream — but when your bed partner asks what’s wrong, you have no idea and can’t remember.

This was probably no ordinary nightmare: It was a night terror.

Night Terrors: More Than A Nightmare

Night terrors are sleep disturbances that can occur in just about anyone, though they are most likely to affect children between ages 3 and 7. Night terrors are different from nightmares: Unlike a nightmare, a night terror is not technically a dream, but instead a sudden, fearful reaction that happens during sleep. Nightmares tend to occur in the early morning hours, while night terrors usually take place between the hours of midnight and 2 a.m.

Nightmares can have obvious triggers, including watching a scary movie or TV show, reading a frightening book, or simply having a bad day. In comparison, night terrors have no known cause, although lack of sleep, a fever, sleeping away from home or in a new environment, and periods of emotional stress can play a role.

In adults, alcohol use may increase the odds of having a night terror.

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Night Terrors in Kids

If your child experiences a night terror, you’ll likely know it — these sleep problems are difficult to ignore. The signs of a night terror in a child are similar to those in adults, but can be more amplified. Observing someone having a night terror can be frightening in itself because of the dramatic signs. These may include:

  • Screaming, shouting, or yelling
  • Sitting up in bed, thrashing around, or other violent movements
  • Unawareness of surroundings
  • Sweating, faster breathing and heartbeat
  • Dilated pupils
  • Inability to be comforted or awakened
  • No memory of the event, which may last 10 to 20 minutes

Kids who are prone to night terrors also tend to sleep walk.

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Preventing Night Terrors and Sleeping Easier

Most children who experience night terrors will eventually outgrow them. In the meantime, you may be able to reduce the odds of night terrors in your children (and yourself) with the following steps:

  • Try to reduce sources of stress and manage your reaction to it.
  • Establish and maintain a regular bedtime.
  • Don’t stay up too late.
  • Seek out therapy if necessary.

If night terrors significantly disrupt sleep, contact your physician — you don’t need to feel like you’re living in a horror movie. The UPMC Center for Sleep Medicine offers care for both adults and children suffering from night terrors.