'They scream, kick and fight in their sleep': how to deal with night terrors

By admin
10 May 2016

"When it happens the first time, it’s truly terrifying."

Often she wakes up to the sounds of bloodcurling screams in the night, and Susan Mitchell* sits bolt upright in a panic -- but neither her husband nor child are in danger.

Her seven-year-old son and 45-year-old husband suffer from night terrors. These are considered a sleeping disorder, and are worse than nightmares.

“They scream and fight in their sleep, usually within the first three hours of falling asleep,” says  the 42-year-old from Paarl say. Thankfully her husband and son do not sleepwalk, as is the case with most people who suffer from this disorder.

“They’re really, really bad nightmares. One also can’t calm them down; they have to settle by themselves. They kick and fight – in fight or flight mode.

"When they wake, they can’t remember any of it,” says Susan. “When it happens the first time, it’s truly terrifying. I give my child some Rescue Remedy before bedtime in the hopes of calming him. I also try and keep the bedtime routine as calm as possible – I suspect the busier his mind is, the more likely it’ll happen.”

Her son also has sensory issues, for which he receives treatment from an occupational therapist.

Read more: How to handle kids’ stress and anxiety

Susan says she’s heard that children with underdeveloped nervous systems tend to get night terrors, as well as adults with post-traumatic stress syndrome, or who simply never outgrew it.

“My husband’s time in the army as a member of the special forces is probably the reason for his night terrors,” Susan reckons.

She would like to know what causes it, and whether her son can outgrow it. YOU asked some experts.

There are a few wild theories about the causes of night terrors. The producers of the DStv reality show Ghost Inside My Child say many of the children who suffer from it, will often recall flashback scenes from a previous life, often decades ago. Often hypnosis is used to help them work through these “memories”, and in most cases the attacks will stop.

“Their eyes are open, but they’re caught up in a nightmare,” says Sandra Alvarez-Smith, a producer of the show. It is traumatic for the parents, because the child is experiencing something you can’t see – it’s terrifying to watch. Some of the children featured on the show remember the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps in the Second World War, or the fear of the Titanic’s architect as he’s sinking to his death with other passengers in the icy ocean. But this theory is highly contested and there isn’t nearly enough research to back it up.

Read more: This could be why you’re having nightmares

These night terrors occur during the deepest part of sleep – not the REM phase. Regular nightmares can be experienced during REM (Rapid Eye Movement), when you are able to wake more easily. A night terror is more likely a sudden reaction to fear which occurs during the transition from one sleeping phase to the next.

During a night terror a child will suddenly sit upright in bed and scream in fear. Children will remember nightmares, but will have no recollection the next day of a night terror because they were in such a deep sleep when it happened – there are no mental images to remember. Nightmares (and dreams) happen during REM so that your body doesn’t act out the nightmare – for instance, climbing through a window to get away from the monster in your dream. During a night terror, your body reacts to the fear of what you’re experiencing.

Most attacks last for a minute or two, but it can take up to half an hour for the person to calm down and fall back asleep.

*Names have been changed

Read more: What to do if your child suffers from separation anxiety

Who has night terrors?

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 6.5% of American adults and 2.2% of children regularly have night terrors.

In children:

It is most prevalent in boys between five and seven years old. It is also fairly common amongst boys and girls between the ages of three and seven. After the age of seven, the problem seems to go away or becomes less severe. Children who are sleeping in an unfamiliar environment can also experience it. Most children outgrow the problem without needing psychiatric treatment.

In adults:

The American Academy of Family Physicians lists the following possible causes for the condition in adults:

•             post-traumatic stress disorder;

•             bipolar disorder;

•             some disorders related to depression;

•             generalised anxiety disorder;

•             substance abuse, especially alcoholism.

Generally, attacks are more severe in adults and are accompanied by other sleeping disorders such as insomnia or sleep apnoea, where someone periodically stops breathing. These cases require medical treatment. The attacks will eventually decrease in frequency and severity.

Read more: Do these 4 things to help you fall asleep fast tonight

What causes night terrors?

No one is exactly sure, but possibilities include sleep deprivation and high stress levels. Conflict and tension in the home can be a trigger for night terrors in children.


•             waking up very suddenly, either partially or completely;

•             screaming and thrashing;

•             intense fear and anxiety with no clear cause;

•             eyes wide open, dilated pupils;

•             rapid breathing;

•             rapid pulse;

•             increased blood pressure;

•             sweating.


In children, the condition can be overcome by comforting them. Parents shouldn’t try and wake the child. Just hold the child tightly and speak soothingly until the attack has passed.

Adults who suffer from the condition will benefit from therapy with a professional person who can help them discover the reason for the attacks, such as a forgotten trauma from years ago.

Only in extreme cases – when a normal, productive life is not possible because of these terrors – medication will be prescribed, such as anti-anxiety medication or tricyclic antidepressants.

How to cope with night terrors

There is nothing a parent can do to make these terrors stop, but you can help your child cope with it.

Do not try and wake your child: Your first instinct is to shake them or call their name, but this can cause a fright and compound the situation. Switch on a low light and talk softly to them until the child wakes up.

Dress them in light clothing: Some parents whose children suffer from night terrors say it’s more likely to happen when the child is too warm in the night. Don’t dress them too warmly and also ensure the bedding is not overheating them. (This approach can also lessen regular nightmares.)

Monitor your child’s sleep routine: An exhausted child will be more prone to night terrors and nightmares. Make sure your child is rested.

Safety: Make sure your child’s room is injury-proofed, in case of incidents during night terrors.

Keep a diary: Write down how soon after falling asleep the night terrors occur – down to the minute. Once you’ve established this, wake the child 15 minutes before the expected attack and keep him/her awake (outside the bed) for 5 minutes. Take the child to the bathroom and see if they need to pee. Do this for a week and see if there’s any difference. If not, speak to a professional, such as a paediatrician or sleep expert.

Sources: healthline.com/health, kidshealth.org, emedicinehealth.com, bellamag.co.za, huffingtonpost.com.

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