Night terrors (sleep terrors) are a sleep disorder in which a person quickly wakes from sleep in a terrified state.
The cause is unknown, but night terrors may be triggered by:
Night terrors are most common in boys ages 5 - 7, although they also can occur in girls. They are fairly common in children ages 3 - 7, and much less common after that. Night terrors may run in families. They can occur in adults, especially when there is emotional tension or the use of alcohol.
Night terrors are most common during the first third of the night, often between midnight and 2 a.m.
Most children are unable to explain what happened the next morning. They often have no memory of the event when they wake up the next day.
Children with night terrors may also sleep walk.
In contrast, nightmares are more common in the early morning. They may occur after someone watches frightening movies or TV shows, or has an emotional experience. A person may remember the details of a dream when he or she wakes up, and will not be disoriented after the episode.
In many cases, no further examination or testing is needed. If the night terror is severe or prolonged, the child may need a psychological evaluation.
In many cases, a child who has a night terror only needs to be comforted.
Reducing stress or using coping mechanisms may reduce night terrors. Talk therapy or counseling may be needed in some cases.
Benzodiazepine medicines (such as diazepam) used at bedtime will often reduce night terrors, but are rarely used to treat this disorder.
Most children outgrow night terrors in a short period of time. The number of episodes usually decreases after age 10. Rarely, children will have problems falling asleep or staying asleep.
Call for an appointment with your health care provider if:
Minimizing stress or using coping mechanisms may reduce night terrors. The number of episodes usually decreases after age 10.
Pavor nocturnus; Sleep terror disorder
Owens JA. Sleep medicine: In: Kliegman RM, Behrman RE, Jenson HB, Stanton BF, eds. Nelson Textbook of Pediatrics. 18th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2007: chap 18.
Updated by: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
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