What Are Night Terrors?

Sweating during sleep and frightened screams are among the symptoms of the condition known as night terrors.

night terrors

Night terrors go beyond the common nightmare. They occur when a child's central nervous system becomes overstimulated and could lead to sleepwalking.

© Varandah | Dreamstime.com

The term “night terrors” just sounds frightening, especially because children are the ones who experience them. But exactly what are night terrors and how do they differ from nightmares?

All children have nightmares now and then, causing them to wake up crying or afraid. Usually, they can be soothed back to sleep, and everything returns to normal. Night terrors, on the other hand, are much more troubling episodes for kids and their parents. Fortunately for everyone involved, most children who experience night terrors outgrow them by adolescence. And thankfully, night terrors aren’t a rite of passage for all children; around 5 percent of kids experience them.

What Are Night Terrors?

A night terror occurs when a child’s central nervous system (CNS) becomes over-aroused. Researchers believe kids are vulnerable to this kind of overstimulation because their CNS is still forming. Night terrors also may have a genetic component. The vast majority of children who experience night terrors have a family member who also endured them or who was a sleepwalker. Sleepwalking and night terrors are in some ways similar sleep disorders.

To be able to distinguish between night terrors and nightmares, you need to see how the child responds physically.

Symptoms of Night Terrors

Sweating during sleep and an accelerated heart rate are two key indicators of night terrors. A faster breathing rate (hyperventilation) may also be present. Dilated pupils are also indicative of night terrors. A child who has a nightmare usually doesn’t have that kind of response.

Night terrors may last only a minute or two, or they may go on for 20 minutes or more. Like some very vivid nightmares, night terrors are also characterized by screams and thrashing about before waking.

Night terrors also leave many children confused. They may not know where they are at first. A child having a night terror may also be asleep during the entire episode, eventually calming down without every fully waking up. And when asked what caused the screaming, the child may not have any recollection of a bad dream or anything else related to the event. After a nightmare, on the other hand, a child often recalls at least some details of the scary dream.



Problems getting to sleep, or staying asleep? See these University Health News posts for tips from our experts.

Night Terrors: Frequency and Duration

Another way to distinguish between night terrors and nightmares is the time in which they occur. Nightmares usually happen early in the morning. Night terrors usually strike after midnight, but before 2 or 3 a.m.

A child might have one night terror in his or her lifetime, or have several over a period of years. They occur most often between the ages of 4 and 12, though they may develop earlier. Usually, night terrors stop on their own without treatment.

If night terrors persist and occur frequently, however, your child should be evaluated by a mental health professional. Often, night terrors are triggered by fever or a lack of sleep. If sweating during sleep is observed, be sure to take your child’s temperature to be sure the episode wasn’t due to illness.

If the cause isn’t physical in nature, then consider that stress, anxiety, or more serious underlying emotional conditions could be to blame. In some cases, however, there are no obvious reasons. If your child does experience night terrors, take note of any possible triggers for the event.

Originally published in May 2016 and updated.

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Jay Roland

Jay Roland has been executive editor of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Mind, Mood & Memory since 2017. Previously, he held the same position with Cleveland Clinic’s Heart Advisor, since 2007. In … Read More

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