Sleep Terrors (Night Terrors)

What are Sleep Terrors?

Sleep terror—commonly known as a night terror—is a parasomnia, or a disorder characterized by abnormal and disruptive behavior of the nervous system while a person sleeps. When a person has a night terror, he or she may appear to wake up in a discombobulated and terrified state. While sleep terrors may be confused with nightmares, there are some differences. Unlike nightmares, people with sleep terrors usually don’t remember the occurrence the next day. While a person with a nightmare may not be able to go back to sleep after being scared, a person with a night terror may be able to back to sleep after about ten minutes.

Sleep terrors are most commonly seen in children, especially those who are experiencing a stressful situation, such as sleeping in a new home, going through an illness, or not getting adequate sleep each night. While not as common, adults can also experience night terrors due to a stressful or emotional event. The use of some medications and sometimes alcohol can set off a night terror. If a person has another sleep-related disorder, such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, sleep walking, etc., he or she may also suffer night terrors.

What are the Symptoms of Sleep Terrors?

Because people that experience night terrors rarely remember their episodes, a family member may be the one to notice many of the symptoms. For example, a person having a night terror may thrash around in their sleep. When they awake they may act confused or afraid, but may not be fully conscious and fall back asleep easily. Some other common symptoms include hyperventilation, dilated pupils, screaming, wide-eyed staring, sweating, racing heart rate, and sometimes sleep walking or aggressive behavior.

Sleep Terrors Causes

Sleep terrors can be caused by sleep deprivation, fever, stressful life events, anesthesia recently given prior to surgery, disruptions to a normal sleep schedule, and new medications affecting the central nervous system. Sleep terrors can also be caused by conditions such as mood disorders (like anxiety and depression), restless leg syndrome, alcoholism (in adults), and sleep disorders that affect your breathing during sleep.

Sleep terrors can also result from being too tired, sleeping in a new environment, and having too much caffeine. While rare, sleep terrors can run in a family, so if you have a history of sleep terrors within the family, you (or your children) are at a higher risk.

How are Sleep Terrors Treated?

An occasional night terror is nothing to worry about. However, if this disorder causes disrupted sleep or even injury, then a person should seek out help. A doctor may check a person’s current medications and medical history to make sure that there are no side effects or other underlying conditions. If a person has trouble sleeping, then a sleep aid may need to be prescribed. However, most sleep terrors can be eliminated if a person reduces the stressors in their life. Seeing a therapist can also help a person learn coping mechanisms to help them relax at night.

Sleep Terrors Prevention

You can prevent your child (or yourself) from having sleep terrors by eliminating any source of sleep disruptions, maintaining a consistent bedtime routine, and maintaining a consistent wake-up time. Try to make sure your child is in a stress-free environment and that they get enough rest.

You can also try to create a bedtime routine that helps to relax your child. For instance, you could start with a soothing bath, then go on to brushing teeth, continue on to read a book and then finish with a good night song. Try to remain consistent with your routine each day. Make sure your child has a strict bedtime. Staying up too late could cause sleep terrors.

If you find that the night terrors seem to be occurring at the same time each night, try waking up (or waking your child up) a few minutes before the “scheduled” terror and see if that helps to prevent it from occurring. Be sure not to wake your child right in the middle of the episode and try to keep them safe (if the episodes happen to be violent).

Last Reviewed:
October 10, 2016
Last Updated:
November 09, 2017