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Your Child May Appear Wild-Eyed and Possessed

Night Terrors: Nighttime Fight or Flight Response

Night terrors in children are terrifying: both for the child and for the parents. Without any appreciable warning, your child sits up in bed screaming, and then tries to run from a perceived threat. She doesn't respond to your attempts to soothe her, and appears wild-eyed and "possessed." After five to twenty minutes (which seem like forever during the night terror), the child calms and falls asleep. In the morning, she has no clear recollection of the event.

While both adults and children can suffer from the disorder, night terrors in children are far more common. The disorder affects approximately five percent of children, and is most common between the ages of three and five. The disorder is also referred to as sleep terrors.

Nightmares and Night Terrors

Sleep terrors are not, as many people suppose, especially vivid nightmares. Nightmares are vivid, frightening dreams that occur during REM sleep, when dreaming occurs. Upon awakening from a nightmare, your child will be confused and frightened, but will respond to soothing and comfort. The child will probably remember the scary dream in detail.

Night terrors occur during the deepest stages of sleep, when dreaming does not occur. The child rarely remembers the event, although some children have vague recollections of being chased. Night terrors in children produce "fight or flight" responses, and as the child is partially asleep, comforting is often ineffectual.

A Typical Night Terror

The child sits up in bed quite suddenly, screaming uncontrollably or calling for help. This is quickly followed by bolting from the bed and attempting to flee the "threat." Attempts to hold or soothe the child often cause more frenzied activity. Although the child may call his parents' names, he does not recognize them.

Remember, the child's flight or flight instincts are operating, and his only thought is to escape the imagined threat. Because of this, children will blunder into, or through doors and windows. Physically, the child may be sweating, his heart rate will be up, and his pupils will seem unusually large, giving him the "possessed" look that often accompanies the disorder. As the event winds down, the child slowly calms, and eventually returns to bed.

Stress and Other Causes

It's generally held that immature central nervous systems cause night terrors in children, although some people never outgrow the disorder. Triggers may include medication, tiredness, heavy meals before bedtime, and stress.

It is worth noting that small children can be stressed by events adults take for granted. Potty training, for instance, can be very stressful to a child. Although a direct link between the stress of potty training and other childhood milestones and sleep terrors cannot be made with any certainty, it's worth considering, especially since potty training typically coincides with the peak ages for night terrors.

The disorder is occasionally associated with childhood sleep apnea-when breathing stops for short periods of time throughout the night. You can find out more about apnea at

Controlling Sleep Terrors

While it may be difficult, the best way to deal with night terrors in children is to keep your distance and let the event pass by itself. Obviously, this doesn't mean ignore the child, whose panic may place her in danger, but it does mean that the initial urge to hold and comfort your child is a mistake. She quite simply doesn't recognize you. Instead, try these suggestions:

Stay between your child and dangerous locations (stairs, windows).
Talk calmly and constantly.
Keep obstacles in the room to a minimum (items on floor that could be tripped over).
Avoid hugging and holding unless the child needs to be restrained for protection.

Home | Arousal | Sleep-Wake Transition | REM Sleep | Other Parasomnias
Night Terrors | Sleep Paralysis | Teeth Grinding | SIDS
Arousal: Those that wake the sleeper; night terrors and sleepwalking.
Night Terrors
Sleep-Wake Transition: Those that cause partial arousal; sleep talking.
REM Sleep: Those that occur during REM; RBD and sleep paralysis.
Sleep Paralysis
Other Parasomnias: Bedwetting, teeth grinding and SIDS 
Teeth Grinding

Last modified 20 September 2006
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