The sound of screaming in the middle of the night can be terrifying. For those living with night terrors, or living with someone who experiences night terrors, awakening to shrieks may be a regular occurrence. Yet the recurrence of night terrors will most likely not diminish the feeling of fear and a racing heart each time an episode occurs.

So what causes night terrors? Can they be treated? Let’s dig in and find out if night terrors are something – medically speaking – we should be afraid of. 

What are night terrors? 

Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are nocturnal episodes of screaming, extreme fear, and/or flailing limbs. When someone is experiencing a night terror, they may sit straight up with their eyes open, looking panicked. They likely won’t respond to anyone who tries to wake them up or comfort them. On average, a night terror episode lasts between 30 seconds and three minutes, but in some circumstances, it can last longer. When the episode ends, the person will usually fall back asleep peacefully. Despite the intensity, the next morning, they typically won’t remember their night terror episode at all.  

As alarming as they can be, night terrors are not usually linked to an underlying disease, medical condition, or psychological disorder. The chilling episodes are a type of parasomnia – sleep disorders in which odd and unusual events occur and disrupt sleep.  

Night terrors vs nightmares: what’s the difference? 

Nightmares are terrifying and unsettling dreams that are sometimes severe enough to wake you up, but they are not the same as night terrors. There are three main differentiators:  

  • Unlike night terrors, nightmares typically aren’t accompanied by any physical movements or screams. 
  • Children and adults can usually remember their nightmares, whereas they’ll have no memory of a night terror episode.  
  • Night terrors occur at the beginning of the night and are mainly related to deep sleep. Nightmares usually occur during REM sleep.   

Who experiences night terrors? 

Sleep terrors are common in children, occurring at least once in 56% of all children up to 13 years old. Up to 6.5% of children experience night terrors regularly, typically beginning as young as one and a half years old. Seeing your child experience a night terror can be very upsetting, however, take comfort in knowing that in most cases, they will grow out of them.  

Though night terrors are seen much less frequently past adolescence, 2.2% of adults experience sleep terror episodes.  

What causes night terrors? 

Most parasomnias, which include night terrors, sleepwalking, and sleep talking, are caused by a genetic predisposition. If a parent or sibling sleepwalks or has night terrors, the child is more likely to do the same.  

Individuals with other sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, nocturnal asthma, and restless leg syndrome, are more likely to experience night terrors. Sleepwalking and night terrors also appear to be linked. Both can be caused by improper arousal during deep (or slow-wave) sleep, leaving them somewhere in a state between wakefulness and sleep. Those who regularly experience night terrors may have difficulty sustaining deep sleep.  

Additional night terror triggers include: 

  • Sleep deprivation 
  • An unfamiliar sleep location 
  • Migraines 
  • An overly full bladder 
  • Stress (physical or emotional) 
  • Fever (especially in children) 
  • Alcohol or substance abuse 
  • Head and brain injury 
  • Hyperthyroidism 
  • Noise or light

How can you treat night terrors?  

If you or your child have severe and frequent night terrors -more than twice a week- you should consider consulting a doctor. Medical professionals can work with you on a tailored treatment plan and can help determine if your night terrors are linked to another sleep disorder or medical condition.  

For children who are experiencing infrequent night terror episodes, treatment is most likely unnecessary. Sleep terrors often stop on their own as children grow and their nervous systems develop. 

Do not try to wake someone during a night terror episode as doing so could make the episode last longer and result in you getting injured. If you are living with someone who experiences frequent night terrors, make sure that the bedroom is free from potentially dangerous items. Parents who are contemplating how to keep their children safe during episodes of night terrors could consider a safety guard on a child’s bed to keep them from falling out of it, or put a mattress on the ground beneath their bed to provide cushioning in case of a fall. 

Sleep deprivation is a common trigger for night terrors, so to give you and your child the best chance of getting quality sleep, try to adopt a regular sleep schedule (waking up and going to bed at the same time consistently). Reduce stress where possible and together with your child, plan a calming bedtime routine, that you both can look forward to at the end of the day.  

Once you know more about them, night terrors may not feel so scary after all.