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What Causes Night Terrors in Children (and How to Stop It)?

One of the many facets of parenting a child includes comforting them and helping them scale through the many disconcerting happenings that their growing up entails. However, depending on the kid, especially in early childhood, you may have to deal with recurring themes like nightmares and night terrors.

For the unacquainted, your child’s first night terror incident can be quite unsettling. In most cases, you have to watch your child scream and thrash around while asleep, with most attempts to comfort them, providing little to no respite.

Quick Tip:

For most cases of night terrors, you don’t have to worry much or even visit the pediatrician. Sleep terror episodes are quite common amongst children aged 4-12 years, especially boys, and are rarely ever a cause for concern.

Plus, most kids will grow entirely out of it once their nervous system begins to reach maturity.

Before the twentieth century, it was quite commonplace to chalk up such bizarre experiences to demonic possessions, as an aftereffect of listening to terrifying stories before bedtime, or other even more esoteric causes.

However, thanks to advances in polysomnography and psychoanalysis, we now have factual explanations for why children sometimes experience sleep terrors.

More: What’s a Night Terror?

What Causes Night Terrors in Children

According to a report in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, night terrors stem from an over-arousal of the central nervous system during sleep.

This arousal can set off vital aspects of the nervous system that control waketime brain activity, triggering movement and speech, and resulting in sleep disturbances like sleep terrors and sleepwalking

At first glance, a night terror episode may appear to be a particularly intense nightmare paired with body movements. However, unlike dreams that occur during deeper REM sleep, night terrors tend to transpire in the early, non-REM stages of sleep.

Around 2-3 hours after falling asleep, the body begins to transition from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to the first stage of REM sleep. While this transition goes on smoothly in most cases, on rare occasions, some disruption may occur.

With such disruptions comes the possibility of one or several sleep terror episodes throughout the night.

In kids, the fact that the central nervous system is yet to mature accounts for a higher chance of over-arousal, and consequently, an increased risk factor for night terrors.

Furthermore, some children may inherit a predisposition to experience sleep terror episodes. According to experts, kids whose parents or siblings report the occurrence of night terrors during their childhood are significantly more likely to experience the sleep disorder themselves.

However, the causes of night terrors in children are not restricted to growth and hereditary alone. The following conditions and living situations can also be potential triggers for sleep terror episodes.

  • Stress, fatigue, and sleep deprivation: one possible common trigger for night terrors in children, as well as a host of other sleep disorders, is stress and fatigue. Sleep deprivation or a radical shift in sleep schedules further exacerbates the strain of such a condition on the central nervous system.
  • Change of Environment: Another potential trigger that closely links to sleep schedule changes is when the kid moves to a new environment or spends some time away from home. The unfamiliarity of the new space may make it harder for the child to sleep smoothly, and it may be enough to trigger a sleep terror episode.
  • Depression, anxiety, and other mood disorders: many of the leading psychoanalytical works on the subject report that night terror episodes can often have a concrete basis in real-life anxiety, mental conflicts, and complexes. Consequently, intense bouts of anxiety, depression, or repressed emotion may be enough to trigger night terrors.
  • Recurring night terror occurrences may also point to an underlying sleep disorder like sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome.
  • Side effects of new medications
  • A secondary symptom of other illnesses like having a fever
  • Sleeping with a full bladder
  • Eating large portions immediately before bed
  • Excessive caffeine intake

How to Help Your Child

With children experiencing night terrors, the best thing you can do as a parent is to do nothing and wait it out. Meanwhile, you can keep the kid’s path clear of obstruction, and reduce the chance of them hurting themselves.

In most cases, the kid will relax and return to sleep without any help in a few minutes.

Furthermore, you mustn’t attempt to wake up your child during the episodes. For one, you are unlikely to succeed, and even when you do, your kid will awake into a dazed and confused state, and it may take them much longer to get back to sleep.

Often, night terrors will resolve on their own, and your kid will grow out of them eventually. However, if your child is dealing with sleep terrors every other night, or if the episodes are getting more violent, you may want to consider visiting a doctor or a sleep specialist.

Read More: How to Stop Night Terrors: 12 Proven Mind Tricks

Other Frequently Asked Questions

Are night terrors linked to ADHD?

Scientific reports indicate that adolescents who got a childhood diagnosis of ADHD have a significantly higher chance of encountering sleep problems like nightmares and sleep, terrors.

Are night terrors linked to epilepsy?

While there is no known direct link between night terrors and epilepsy, parasomnias like night terrors and somnambulation can bear symptoms that are similar to those of nocturnal frontal-lobe seizures and can often be misdiagnosed as such.