My 7-year old son ran a fever for two to three days. After the
fever resolved, he started screaming very loudly in his sleep. He is
very difficult to awaken so we don't know what he is dreaming about. I
have a friend in the United States whose son suffers from so called
night terrors. Are my son's symptoms consistent with this, and what can
we as parents do to help him?
It is possible that your son's symptoms as you describe them are due to
so called night terrors or sleep terrors.
Night terrors, or Pavor Nocturnus, are characterized by extreme fear,
sudden awakening and reactions such as loud screaming, sweating, rapid
pulse and confusion. During the attack which usually lasts between five
and 15 minutes, the child is usually unresponsive and very difficult to
awaken even though his eyes may be open. Afterward, he or she often do
not remember what happened, but may experience a lingering sense of
Night terrors are most common in preschool-age children but can also
occur in later stages of life. The symptoms can be very frightening for
those who witness them, but the night terror itself is benign.
Night terrors differ from nightmares. Nightmares occur during the latter
part of the night's sleep, in the dream phase, or REM-sleep. The dreams
frighten the child who usually wakes up with a clear memory of the dream
and seeks comfort and reassurance from the parents.
Night terrors, on the other hand, occur during a deeper phase, the first
third of the night's sleep, usually about an hour after the child goes
to bed. This is not about dreams with scary topics, but about a true
sense of fear, and the absence of dream images makes the night terror
seem worse and more confusing than ordinary nightmares.
The best thing you as parents can do for your son if he suffers from
night terrors is to remain calm. Treat him gently, sit close to him and
wait for the attack to pass. Singing a song he likes, or holding him may
also help. Avoid speaking loudly and other sharp sounds and try not to
shake him in order to wake him up. This is likely to make the attack
worse. Remove any items that could harm him and be observant that he
does not hurt himself, even though this is very rare. When the attack
has passed, he will wake by himself or resume sleep. At this time, there
is no need to talk to him. It is best to just put him to bed, because he
will be tired and most likely not remember anything of what transpired.
The attacks usually return about the same time during the night. One way
to reduce the risk for attacks may be to waken the child about one-half
hour before the expected attack. Pick him up, keep him awake and talk to
him for a few minutes and then let him go back to sleep. This method is
a way to attempt to get past the most critical phase of sleep.
Night terrors are believed to be hereditary, just as sleep walking.
Numerous factors could play a role; for example if the child is
stressed, anxious or overly tired; if the child has or has had a high
fever, or has experienced an especially stressful event during the day.
There may also be a connection with an illness; for example epilepsy,
although this is rare.
If you suspect that your child suffers from night terrors, first
consider any medical, psychological or social problems that could affect
sleep. Monitor if there are any particular incidents that tend to upset
the child and try to avoid these events if possible. You may also want
to look at your child's sleep pattern to see if it could be improved.
Night terror is a common facet in many children's development and
usually does not require treatment. The attacks typically end before
If the attacks occur very frequently (almost every night) and last for a
long period of time, you can seek help at a children's clinic or the
school nurse. You should contact a physician if you are concerned about
something else, such as that the child may suffer from an illness or
medical problem that could contribute to the night terrors, or that the
child is at risk for hurting himself during an attack.
Finally, you should seek help if the problem remains during puberty.
Adults suffering from night terrors may be helped by stress-reducing
treatment and psychotherapy. Treatment with medication is an
alternative, but seldom recommended.