Understanding Your Child’s Night Terrors
The significance of sleep for optimal growth and development of children cannot be sufficiently emphasized. Yet for a significant number of young children, the quality of this most basic requisite is compromised by the experience of night terrors.
Unlike nightmares, which we all know as disturbing or scary dreams, night terrors are a form of sleep disturbance characterised by recurrent episodes of intense crying and fear during sleep, in the absence of the visual and auditory stimuli present during normal dreaming.
To understand night terrors, it is imperative to know the workings of sleep. Sleep is divided into two basic stages: REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep.
Night terrors occur within non-REM sleep, specifically when the child is transitioning from the third stage of non- REM sleep, which is a deep stage of sleep, to the last stage of non-REM sleep, which is a markedly lighter phase of sleep.
In healthy sleep, the transition is seamless and uneventful; however, with the experience of night terrors, the child becomes agitated and with fearful behaviors such as shouting, screaming or fretful body movements. The child cannot be roused and any effort to calm the child will be ineffective, as the behavior is not conscious at all. Once the episode has passed, the child resumes his or her sleep, with no recollection of the events in morning.
Causes of Night Terrors
The precise causes of night terrors are unknown. It has been speculated that they are caused by an immature nervous system. In addition, it has been noted that children who are overly stressed, those who are on certain medications and those who sleep in an unfamiliar environment are more prone to night terrors.
Ultimately, night terrors dissipate spontaneously once the child reaches adolescence. In the meantime, ensuring the child’s safety during night terrors – for example, making sure that they do not injure themselves – following good sleeping habits, such as a calm and gentle sleep routine, and avoiding overstimulation in the hours before bedtime are the most constructive ways of both managing and possibly preventing night terrors.
About the author: Dr Sumayya Ebrahim is a registered psychologist in Johannesburg. She holds an Honours degree in Applied Psychology, a Masters degree in Psychology cum laude, and a PhD.
Her academic interests are wellbeing, emotional intelligence, positive psychology, critical psychology and infertility. She is the author of Investment in Self: A comprehensive wellbeing construct.
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