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Growth and Development

What Causes Night Terrors?

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My grandsons, who are 3 and 4 years old, have been having night terrors since they were each 18 months old. What causes these episodes?
- Imani

Night terrors are somewhat mysterious. It might seem as though they're the same as a bad dream, but they aren't. Night terrors usually happen in the first 2 or 3 hours of sleep, whereas bad dreams often happen in the early morning hours.

During a night terror, kids don't actually wake up and don't respond to efforts to comfort or reassure them. When kids have bad dreams, they usually wake up feeling scared or upset, and are happy to be comforted by their parents. Night terrors are generally not remembered in the morning, while bad dreams are often at least partially recalled.

The good news is that night terrors don't seem to have any harmful effects on kids who have them, and they usually outgrow them. Experts believe that night terrors might be caused by the over-arousal of a child's immature central nervous system during sleep. Some kids may inherit a tendency for this over-arousal — about 80% who have night terrors have a family member who also had them or sleepwalking (a similar type of sleep disturbance). Sometimes night terrors are more common in kids who are going through stressful life events, on certain medications, not getting enough sleep, or having too much caffeine.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: July 2013

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses and treatment, consult your doctor.

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