Understanding Night Terrors: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

Understanding Night Terrors: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

A night terror is a sleep disorder that is characterized by violent outbursts of fear and terror during the night. These outbursts are often accompanied by hallucinations and other abnormal behaviors. If you’re a parent, you know how terrifying these episodes can be for your child. And if you’ve ever had one yourself, you know how scary it can be. Unfortunately, many people are unaware that they are actually experiencing a night terror episode. But don’t worry—if you recognize the signs and symptoms of night terrors, you can get help. Learn about the causes, symptoms, and treatments of this sleep disorder in this comprehensive guide.

What Are Night Terrors?

Night terrors are a type of parasomnia that can be extremely frightening for those who experience them. They occur during non-REM sleep, typically within the first few hours of falling asleep. Unlike nightmares, which occur during REM sleep and often involve vivid dreams, night terrors are more like brief episodes of panic or terror that happen without any conscious awareness.

During a night terror episode, a person may exhibit physical signs of distress such as screaming, flailing their arms or legs, or even kicking. They may appear to be in great distress and completely unaware of their surroundings. It’s important to note that while this can be alarming for anyone witnessing it, the person experiencing the night terror is not actually awake and is unlikely to remember what happened once they return to normal sleep.

Other symptoms associated with night terrors include rapid heart rate and breathing, flushed skin, sweating, and tensing of the muscles.

Night terrors can be a distressing and terrifying experience for both children and parents. While they are not uncommon, affecting approximately 1-6% of children, the duration and frequency of night terrors can vary greatly between individuals. For some children, night terrors can last up to 30-40 minutes, while most episodes typically last around 10 minutes.

Although it may seem alarming to witness a child experiencing a night terror, it’s important to remember that they usually do not have any recollection of the event the next morning. This is because night terrors occur during non-REM sleep, which means that the child is not fully awake or aware during the episode. After a night’s terror has ended, most children will fall back into a deep sleep without any further disturbances.

Who Is Affected by Night Terrors?

Night terrors are a type of sleep disorder that can cause intense fear and anxiety during sleep. They are characterized by sudden and abrupt awakenings from a deep sleep, accompanied by screaming, sweating, and rapid heartbeat. Night terrors are prevalent in individuals of all ages, but they tend to occur more frequently in young children compared to adolescents or adults.

Night Terrors in Children

Night terrors are a common occurrence in children, with estimates suggesting that up to 15% of children will experience them at some point. While the most common age for night terrors is often debated among experts, there is a general consensus that they tend to occur between the ages of 4 and 12. During this time, children are undergoing significant physical and psychological changes, which can contribute to their susceptibility to these episodes.

Despite this widely accepted age range, recent research has revealed another peak in night terror occurrence – at just 1.5 years old. In fact, up to 35% of children at this age may experience these episodes. This finding challenges traditional beliefs about the timing of night terrors and highlights the importance of continued research in understanding this phenomenon.

night terror

Night Terrors in Adolescents

Night terrors are a common sleep disorder that affects both children and adults. However, studies have shown that the prevalence of night terrors in children over the age of 12 appears to be low. While most adolescents who have night terrors experienced them when they were younger, some may still experience them as teenagers.

According to one study, only 4% of parasomnias like night terrors will persist past adolescence. This suggests that most adolescents who experience night terrors will eventually outgrow them as they get older. However, it is important for parents and caregivers to be aware of any persistent or recurring episodes of night terrors in teenagers as they may be related to trauma or a mental health condition.

Night Terrors in Adults

Night terrors are a common occurrence that affects millions of people worldwide. However, it is interesting to note that adults experience night terrors much less frequently than young children. According to recent studies, only 2.2% of adults have reported experiencing night terrors at some point in their lives, while very few people over the age of 65 describe having night terrors.

It’s important to note that adults with a childhood history of night terrors may experience a recurrence of these episodes later in life. Research suggests that stress, sleep deprivation, or the development of another sleep disorder can trigger these episodes in adulthood.

Adults who suffer from night terrors may experience violent behaviors during the episode, leading to an increased risk of injury to themselves or other household members. Unlike nightmares which occur during REM sleep and can be recalled when woken up, night terrors take place during non-REM deep sleep and cannot be remembered once they end. This lack of recollection makes it difficult for patients to seek help on their own and often require support from family members or loved ones who witness these events.

Causes of Night Terrors

Night terrors can be a very frightening experience for both the person experiencing them and those who witness them. They are different from nightmares, in that they occur during non-REM sleep stages, and are typically accompanied by physical reactions such as sweating, rapid heart rate, and screaming. Night terrors usually last just a few minutes but can leave a lasting impression on the person experiencing them.

The cause of night terrors is not yet fully understood. However, it is thought that an over-arousal of the central nervous system may be responsible for these episodes. Certain factors such as stress or anxiety may increase the likelihood of having a night terror episode. Additionally, some medical conditions such as restless leg syndrome or sleep apnea have also been linked to night terrors. More research is needed to understand this phenomenon further and provide effective treatments for those affected by it.

Night terrors episodes usually happen around 2 or 3 hours after a child falls asleep when the sleep cycle moves from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep. While this transition is typically smooth, some children may become upset and frightened, resulting in a night terror.

During a night terror episode, a person may appear to be awake but will not respond to your attempts to comfort them. They may scream or cry uncontrollably for several minutes at a time, which can leave parents feeling helpless and frustrated. It’s important to understand that while night terrors are distressing for everyone involved, they are not harmful or dangerous. Most children grow out of them as they get older.

night terror

Symptoms of Night Terrors

If you’ve ever woken up in the middle of the night with a feeling of overwhelming fear and confusion, you may have experienced what is known as a “night terror.” These episodes are most common during the first third of the night and can be incredibly distressing for those who experience them. During a night terror, a person is usually not aware of their surroundings and cannot respond to attempts to comfort or awaken them.

Some common symptoms of night terror include sweating, rapid breathing, an elevated heart rate, and dilated pupils. Although these symptoms can be alarming to witnesses, it’s important to remember that the person experiencing the episode is not in any real danger. In fact, they will likely go back to sleep once it has passed. 

If you’ve ever woken up with a feeling of unease but can’t quite remember why, you’re not alone. Many people experience events during the night that they can’t recall in the morning. These experiences can range from minor to life-altering, and they’re often linked to sleep disturbances like night terrors or sleepwalking.

Children are particularly susceptible to these types of nighttime disturbances, which can cause them to wake up in a state of confusion or fear. Night terrors, in particular, may lead children to wander around their homes while still asleep. Fortunately, there are steps parents can take to help their children feel safe and secure during the night.

Adults aren’t immune to nighttime disturbances either. In fact, many people report having more nightmares in the early morning hours than at any other time during the night.

When to Call a Physician?

In most cases, night terrors do not require any further testing or evaluation beyond a thorough medical history and physical exam. This is because they are typically benign and tend to resolve on their own without treatment. However, if night terrors occur frequently or disrupt one’s quality of life (such as causing excessive daytime sleepiness), it is recommended that the individual see a medical professional to rule out any underlying sleep disorders.

Treatments for Night Terrors

To effectively manage night terrors, it is recommended to consult with a doctor who can customize treatment based on your individual requirements. Being aware of how to handle night terrors during an episode can help reduce potential negative outcomes, and fortunately, these incidents typically resolve on their own.

Should You Wake Up a Child Who Is Having Night Terrors?

One of the most important things you can do as a parent is to stay close to your child and ensure that they don’t fall or hurt themselves during the episode.

It’s also crucial not to try and wake your child during a night terror. While it may seem like the right thing to do, attempts at arousal could cause the episode to last longer or even result in physical injury. Night terrors are usually short-lived, and your child will eventually fall back asleep on their own. It’s better for them if you simply stay by their side until it passes.

Parents can also take steps proactively to prevent night terrors from occurring in their children.

If your child experiences night terrors on a regular basis, it is important to take steps to ensure that their bedroom is a safe environment. Remove any potentially dangerous items from the room and make sure all doors and windows are securely locked. This will prevent your child from accidentally injuring themselves during an episode. It is also important that other caregivers and family members know what to do if a night terror occurs so they can provide appropriate support.

night terror

What Is the Treatment for Night Terrors in Children?

Although night terrors are relatively harmless in most cases, they can still disrupt your child’s sleep patterns and affect their overall well-being. To improve your child’s sleep hygiene and reduce the frequency of these episodes, it is important to establish healthy sleep routines early on. This may include setting regular bedtimes and wake-up times, creating a calm and relaxing bedtime environment, avoiding stimulating activities before bedtime such as screen time or vigorous exercise, and limiting caffeine intake throughout the day.

While most people will outgrow night terrors by their teenage years, some may continue to experience them well into adulthood.

The good news is that night terror can be reduced or treated if an underlying medical problem is contributing to them. Medical conditions such as sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) have been known to cause parasomnia. A doctor can help determine if any underlying medical conditions are contributing to the episodes through a physical exam and diagnostic tests such as a sleep study.

Night Terror Treatment in Adolescents and Adults

For those who experience repeated night terrors, seeking help from a sleep specialist may be beneficial. A sleep specialist can help identify whether there is an underlying cause that is contributing to the episodes. This could include factors such as stress or anxiety, medications that affect sleep patterns, or other medical conditions such as obstructive sleep apnea. Once any underlying issues have been identified, the specialist may recommend treatment options tailored to address them specifically.

A sleep diary is a useful tool that can help individuals and healthcare professionals gain a better understanding of their sleep habits. It involves recording the time you go to bed, the time you wake up, and any interruptions throughout the night. Additionally, it may include information such as caffeine intake, exercise routines, and your overall mood during the day. 

Sleep diaries are often recommended by doctors or sleep specialists when evaluating an individual’s sleep patterns. It can help identify underlying issues such as insomnia or restless leg syndrome which could be affecting your quality of life. By keeping an accurate record of your sleeping patterns for a few weeks, you may be able to pinpoint specific triggers that are impacting your ability to get restful sleep. This information will enable healthcare professionals to tailor treatment options for more effective results.


Night terrors, also known as sleep terror disorder, is a type of parasomnia that often affects children but can occur in adults too. It’s a sleep disorder characterized by episodes of intense fear and panic that occur during the night when the individual is asleep. Unlike nightmares, where people may wake up feeling scared or anxious but eventually recognize it was just a dream, night terrors are much more severe.

The cause of night terrors is still unknown, though some factors such as lack of sleep or stress can trigger them. Night terrors usually begin with a piercing scream followed by sweating and a rapid heart rate. The person may sit upright in bed with their eyes wide open but not actually see anything around them and be unaware of your presence if you try to wake them up. They may even thrash around violently or attempt to escape from the room.

Sleep terrors are a type of parasomnia that can be quite alarming to those who experience them, as well as their loved ones. These episodes occur during deep sleep and can last for several minutes. During a sleep terror episode, the individual may scream, cry out in fear, flail their arms and legs or behave in other erratic ways while still asleep.

Although sleep terrors are most commonly experienced by children between the ages of 3 and 12 years old, they can occur at any age. It is not uncommon for adults to experience occasional sleep terrors throughout their lifetime. While these episodes can be distressing for both the person experiencing them and those around them, it’s important to remember that they are generally harmless.

In many cases, people who experience sleep terrors do not remember what happened during their episode upon waking up.

Nightmares are unsettling and often leave people feeling anxious, scared, or even depressed. They typically occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, which is a stage in the sleep cycle that promotes cognitive function and emotional regulation. If you experience chronic nightmares, it could be an indication of an underlying mental health condition such as anxiety or depression. Additionally, stress and traumatic events can cause recurring nightmares that disrupt your sleep patterns.

Night terrors are a type of parasomnia that typically occurs during non-REM sleep stages. They’re characterized by a sudden arousal from deep sleep accompanied by intense fear and confusion. While the exact cause of night terrors isn’t known yet, genetics play a strong role in their development. Children who have one or both parents with night terrors have a higher risk of experiencing them themselves.


Experiencing night terrors can be a distressing and perplexing occurrence for both the individual going through them and their close ones. Understanding the causes, symptoms, and available treatments is crucial in managing this condition. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, seeking support from medical professionals and implementing healthy sleep habits can greatly improve the quality of life for those affected by night terrors. If you or someone you know experiences recurrent night terrors, don’t hesitate to seek professional help to find relief and peace of mind.

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