What causes sleep ter­rors in chil­dren?

The Hamilton Spectator - - HEALTH - MAYO CLINIC NEWS NET­WORK

Dear Mayo Clinic: My 7-year-old daugh­ter has sleep ter­rors. What causes this, and when can we ex­pect them to be fin­ished?

A: It’s hard to pin­point why some chil­dren ex­pe­ri­ence sleep ter­rors and oth­ers don’t, but fa­tigue and stress seem to be fre­quent trig­gers. Any­one can have a sleep ter­ror, but they are most com­mon in chil­dren younger than 12. In most cases, they stop by the time a child reaches mid­dle school or high school.

Sleep ter­rors, also called night ter­rors, are oc­ca­sional episodes of scream­ing and flail­ing while a per­son is still asleep. In some cases, sleep ter­rors may in­volve sleep­walk­ing. Although the be­hav­iour that hap­pens dur­ing a sleep ter­ror can put a child at risk for phys­i­cal harm from fall­ing or hit­ting some­thing, a sleep ter­ror it­self isn’t harm­ful and doesn’t pose any health risks. Most of the time, chil­dren don’t re­mem­ber hav­ing a sleep ter­ror. Be­cause of that, sleep ter­rors are usu­ally more up­set­ting for other mem­bers of the house­hold than they are for the child who ac­tu­ally has them.

Sleep ter­rors tend to run in fam­i­lies. So if a par­ent had them as a child, then his or her chil­dren are at an in­creased risk for them, too. Sleep ter­rors are most likely to hap­pen when a child is over­tired or feel­ing a sig­nif­i­cant amount of stress. Sleep­ing in new sur­round­ings or in a loud or noisy en­vi­ron­ment may con­trib­ute to sleep ter­rors. In chil­dren, fevers may some­times trig­ger a sleep ter­ror.

One of the best steps you can take to help pre­vent sleep ter­rors is to make sure your child is well-rested. A reg­u­lar bed­time rou­tine that is re­lax­ing and doesn’t in­volve any elec­tron­ics — in­clud­ing cell­phones, TV, com­put­ers and video games — also can help. Read books to­gether, play a quiet game, or spend time talk­ing to help your child wind down be­fore bed. If a child doesn’t seem to be able to get enough sleep at night, con­sider a day­time nap. As much as pos­si­ble, keep the stress level in your home low, and help your child work through stress­ful or up­set­ting sit­u­a­tions.

To re­duce the risk of a child hurt­ing him­self or her­self dur­ing a sleep ter­ror, cre­ate a safe bed­room en­vi­ron­ment. Place sharp, heavy or frag­ile ob­jects out of your child’s reach at night. Se­curely lock doors and win­dows. Put gates across stair­ways. Chil­dren who have sleep ter­rors shouldn’t sleep on the top level of a bunk bed.

When a sleep ter­ror hap­pens, stay with your child un­til it is fin­ished. If nec­es­sary, gen­tly re­strain the child from get­ting out of bed, or lead the child back to bed. Speak softly and calmly. Don’t try to wake your child. The phase of sleep when a sleep ter­ror hap­pens makes it un­likely that a child will re­spond to at­tempts to wake him or her.

Shout­ing or shak­ing a child dur­ing a night ter­ror could make the episode last longer. In most cases, a sleep ter­ror will stop on its own. Never pun­ish a child for hav­ing a sleep ter­ror or threaten pun­ish­ment if it hap­pens again. That only in­creases a child’s stress and could worsen the sit­u­a­tion.

Treat­ment usu­ally isn’t nec­es­sary for sleep ter­rors. But if they sig­nif­i­cantly dis­rupt your home reg­u­larly, make an ap­point­ment with your child’s health care provider. He or she can help eval­u­ate the sit­u­a­tion. In rare cases, a child who has fre­quent sleep ter­rors may ben­e­fit from an eval­u­a­tion with a sleep medicine spe­cial­ist. In most cases, how­ever, sleep ter­rors fade away as a child ages, with­out any med­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion.


A sleep ter­ror it­self isn’t harm­ful and does not pose any health risks. Chil­dren usu­ally don’t re­mem­ber them.

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