It sounds like a nightmare but it isn’t. It seems like sleep walking, but it’s not. Night terrors are a form of sleep disturbia that’s relatively common among children and that tends to happen more frequently between ages two to five, but could happen as early as before the baby turns one. The child will sit in bed, yelling, crying, saying things that don’t make any sense, lose their breath, sweat, feel their heart beating rapidly, as though they’re in panic and they could even lay with their eyes open or semi open, with dilated pupils and fixed stare, as though they just woke up from a bad dream.

But, in reality, the child is still sleeping, or better yet, in a place between sleep and awakeness, almost as though they are in a trance. Because of that, it makes it harder to calm them down or remove them from that episode of terror. Parents are usually very stunned, and with reason, due to the child’s fear-stricken demeanor.

Studies suggest that anywhere from 3% to 5% of children experience night terrors. Each episode could last up to 20 minutes and your child will not remember a single thing in the morning. It’s as though nothing happened and, based on what we know so far, it doesn’t cause any long-term harm.

What causes these terrors?

Science is still unable to explain exactly what happens. But, it has been proven that children who have had an agitated or stressful day could be more predisposed to the terrors, besides lacking sleep, having high fevers or sleep apnea. Genetics also plays a role and could explain some things, since it happens more frequently in children whose parents have or have experienced night terrors in the past. Boys are also more prone to experiencing night terrors than girls.

What we do know is that these things happen during different times in the sleep cycle than nightmares. Night terrors happen during what is called the non-REM sleep (NREM). Sleep is divided into light, deep and REM, an acronym for Rapid Eye Movement, which is the phase in which we dream and NREM is composed of light and deep sleep – it is during this phase that the body usually secretes the growth hormone. Night terrors happen during deep sleep.

What can parents do to stop it from happening?

Because a child experiencing night terrors can get up and out of bed, it’s dangerous for them and puts them at risk for an injury. Therefore, the main goal is to avoid any falls and situations that could pose a danger, such as stairs, so it is advised you follow and monitor your child closely. You can hug them or gently caress them back to sleep – in reality, they won’t even notice you were there. Don’t shout or try to wake them up, that way they’ll actually become scared and confused or the crisis can be prolonged.

Adopting a stricter sleep schedule, with a more regular bedtime and wake up time, can also help – increasing naptime or overall sleep time just a little bit. Reinforce sleep hygiene, or the nightly ritual before going to bed, so the child can relax. These crises tend to disappear as time goes by, but if they’re more frequent than you’d expect (such as more than once a night or almost every day), it’s best to seek medical help – the treatment, in this case, is medication-based.