Night terrors. What are they and how to treat them

Sleep is essential for children's proper growth and development. Paediatric sleep disorders affect children's health, and can also have an impact of parental sleep. One of these disorders is the dreaded night terrors.
Night terrors

Night terrors are defined as a sleep disorder that causes a reaction similar to a "panic attack": the episode begins with the child giving a frightening scream or shout, they stare wide-eyed, sweat and breathe heavily, and have a racing pulse. It is hard to wake the child as they are deeply asleep, and they typically have no memory of the event the next morning.

Symptoms of night terrors

  • Night terrors affect 1-6% of all children.
  • They occur more frequently in boys than in girls.
  • They typically occur during the first third of the night, during stages 3 and 4 of sleep, and appear abruptly and suddenly.
  • They usually last from one to 10 minutes. Episodes stop spontaneously and the child will fall asleep again.
  • Lack of sleep, stress and other factors that disturb the sleep, such as a fever or illness, can increase the onset of night terrors in genetically predisposed children.
  • They can be associated with enuresis (night urination) and sleepwalking.

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The study should include detailed information on the child's medical history, including sleep patterns, schedules, behaviour and routines associated with sleep, the child's environment, etc. Information on the development stage is also important.


It is considered a developmental disorder. The disorder often appears between the ages of three and six, although it can appear sporadically throughout childhood. Night terrors usually disappear on their own during adolescence, so there is no specific cure for the disorder. Treatment generally focuses, as seen in the following section, on eliminating causes or triggers.

The importance of adopting good sleep habits

The best treatment for behavioural sleep disorders in infants and children continues to be prevention.

A child establishes an emotional bond or attachment with its mother or carer during early childhood. Attachment is essential for the development of sleep-wake patterns, as well as for the child's developing personality and future social, emotional and mental wellbeing. Attachment gives a child a sense of stability and security.