How Night Terrors Work

Defusing Night Terrors

Try waking your kid up before he slides into night terror land.
Try waking your kid up before he slides into night terror land.
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Night terrors can have multiple causes. First of all, it seems they often run in the family. They can also be triggered by stress, sleep apnea, fever, sleep deprivation, head injuries, migraines, overproduction of thyroid hormones, over-consumption of alcohol, unfamiliar sleep environments, travel or medications that interfere with the central nervous system.

In adults, sleep terrors can develop in conjunction with depression, anxiety or bipolar disorders. And a small minority of children who experience ongoing sleep terrors into adolescence can also be at increased risk of experiencing psychosis [source: Conneely].

Night terrors are no fun for anybody, but they're usually temporary problems that resolve themselves. And while they're resolving, they can disrupt everybody's night, leading to a grumpy, stressed-out, sleep-deprived family. While in the past doctors have prescribed medications like benzodiazepines to deal with the issue, this practice is rarely recommended now because the drugs can lead to other sleep-related problems.

Sometimes kids experience night terrors because their bladders are near bursting, so a simple fix is to take them to the bathroom an hour or two after they fall asleep and to limit their liquid intake a few hours before they go to bed.

Where pee is not involved, there are some other options available. A mother in the U.K. has reported that she solved her 9-year-old son's nightly, exhausting sleep terrors — which had been happening for six years — by putting special sheets on his bed. After a friend told her the problem might be triggered by overheating, Jo Fletcher bought her son Lewis sheets designed to reduce sweating [source: Daily Mail].

Night terrors often happen at predictable intervals. This means it's possible to prevent them with an effective solution called "scheduled awakenings," which involves simply waking the person before the onset of the terrors. There's even a device you can buy and place under a mattress to accomplish the task. The gizmo vibrates gently, bringing the sleeper out of deep sleep at the crucial point. According to some studies, the method works in 9 out of 10 subjects [source: Night Terrors Resource Center].