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Treating Sleep Terrors

What are sleep (night) terrors?

I am often asked about treating sleep terrors, since few things are as frightening to an unknowing parent to observe, as are sleep terrors (night terrors) in their child. Treating sleep terrors is considered when a child who is supposed to be sleeping just “jolts up” quickly with their eyes wide open, sweating, breathing fast and with their heart racing.  They have this look of fear and panic as if they have woken up from a nightmare, and will likely be screaming and crying.  What is worse for parents is that during these episodes, which can last about 5 to 30 minutes, it will seem as if their child is awake, but they will appear confused, will not be consolable and won’t recognize you.  If you do manage to wake your child up during a night terror, he/she is likely to become scared and agitated, mostly due to your own reaction to the night terror, especially if you were shaking or yelling at him/her to wake up.  This is what prompts a parent to think about treating sleep terrors.

When the topic of treating sleep terrors comes up, it is important to keep in mind that for the most part, occasional sleep terrors aren’t usually a cause for concern.  In fact they can simply be mentioned to your doctor at the next well-check.  However, treating sleep terrors should be considered or at least mentioned to your doctor sooner if they become more frequent.  Treating sleep terrors can be considered if they routinely disrupt sleep or the sleep of other family members. Treating sleep terrors can be considered if they cause you or your child to fear going to sleep. Treating sleep terrors can be considered if they lead to dangerous behavior or injury.  Finally, treating sleep terrors can be considered if they appear to follow the same pattern each time

What can cause sleep (night) terrors?

The following things can cause sleep terrors and make one question treating sleep terrors:  sleep deprivation, fatigue, stress, anxiety, fever (in children), sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings, and lights or noise.  Sleep terrors can also occur with conditions that affect sleep, such as:  abnormal breathing patterns during sleep (obstructive sleep apnea), migraines, and head injuries.

Sleep terrors can also occur with the use of certain drugs or medications:  some antihistamines, sedatives, and sleeping pills.

What Is Involved In Treating Sleep Terrors?

In general, treating sleep terrors is not necessary. If your child has one, stay calm and simply wait it out.  Instead of trying to wake up a child having a sleep terror, it is usually better to just make sure your child is safe, comfortable and helped to go back to sleep.  Shaking your child or shouting will likely make things worse, especially if the child does wake up.  If this occurs, they may really become scared and agitated.  This is why it is best to help them get back to sleep without waking them up, this way they won’t remember the scary episode.

If the sleep terrors are associated with an underlying medical or mental health condition or another sleep disorder, treating sleep terrors is aimed at the underlying problem. If stress or anxiety seems to be contributing to the sleep terrors, your doctor may suggest meeting with a therapist or counselor for treating sleep terrors. Cognitive behavior therapy and relaxation therapy may help in treating sleep terrors.

Medication is rarely used in treating sleep terrors, particularly for children. If necessary, however, use of benzodiazepines or some antidepressants may be used in treating sleep terrors by reducing there occurrence.

If sleep terrors are a problem for you or your child, here are some things you can do on your own to help:

Making a safe environment is important when treating sleep terrors. Close all windows and exterior doors at night. Consider placing alarms or bells on the doors. Block doorways or stairways with a gate.  Remove tripping hazards such as electrical cords. Put sharp or fragile objects out of reach.  Finally, if your child has sleep terrors, don’t let him/her sleep in a bunk bed.

Getting more sleep is important when treating sleep terrors, since fatigue can contribute to sleep terrors. Try an earlier bedtime, or a more regular sleep schedule.

Making a routine bedtime ritual is important when treating sleep terrors.  This should be regular, relaxing quiet, and calming activities such as: soaking in a warm bath before bed, reading books, or doing puzzles. Meditation or relaxation exercises can also help.

Eliminating Stress is important when treating sleep terrors.  Identify those things that cause you or your child stress, brainstorm possible ways to handle the stress, or get help. If notice that your child seems anxious or stressed, talk about what’s bothering him or her.

Looking for a pattern can be helpful in treating sleep terrors. If your child has sleep terrors, keep a sleep diary. For several nights, note how many minutes after bedtime a sleep terror episode occurs. If the timing is fairly consistent, wake your child about 15 minutes before you expect a sleep terror episode. Keep your child awake for five minutes, and then let him or her fall asleep again.

Finally stay calm and positive. However scary and disruptive sleep terrors may be, they aren’t a serious condition and will usually go away on their own.

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