What are sleep terrors?
Sleep terrors, or night terrors, is a sleep disorder in which sleepers experience feelings of dread or terror, usually during stage three or four (non REM) sleep. Though they can affect people of all ages, they are predominantly found in children — especially in children ages 2-6. After having a night terror, many children will scream and bolt upright. Other symptoms of night terrors include fast breathing, sweating and having a rapid heart rate. Sometimes people experience sleep terrors will also sleepwalk.
Sleep terrors affect almost 40 percent of children. While most children outgrow them, some teenagers and adults experience them, too.
Night terrors are not nightmares. People who have nightmares wake up and may remember details of the dream, but people who have sleep terrors likely have no memory the next morning.
In addition to sitting up and screaming, people having a sleep terror episode may sweat, breathe heavile, have a racing pulse, a flushed face, and dilated pupils. They may also kick and thrash. They may be hard to awaken and may be confused or inconsolable if they are. They may also be confused and unable to immediately recognize others.
You should bring your child to the doctor if they become more frequent, regularly disrupt sleep, lead to injuries or other safety concerns, and continue beyond childhood.
Some studies suggest that sleep terrors are hereditary, though they can also be caused by stress, poor diet or lack of sleep. A consistent bedtime routine can help to prevent night terrors. They can be caused by sleep depriviation, sleep schedule disruption, and stress. They can also be triggered by sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, depression and anxiety, and some medications. Alcohol can also trigger them in adults. Sleep terrors are more likely in people with a family history of sleep terrors or sleepwalking. Female children are more likely than males to experience them.
Treatment may be needed if the terrors are significant enough to disrupt sleep or could potentially injure someone. If so, the doctor might treat the underlying condition causing the terrors, address stress or any other factor, wake the person before they normally experience the terrors, or in rare cases, use medication.
If you or your children have sleep terrors, please contact our sleep medicine specialists.