Night Terror: Causes, Mechanism and Treatment

Night Terror: Causes, Mechanism and Treatment

Night terrors, also known as parasomnias, are a sleep disorder that occurs during hours of deep sleep, usually during the first part of the sleeper's night.

Here are some typical characteristics of night terrors:

  • Screaming or yelling: affected sleepers may start screaming or yelling during deep slow-wave sleep.
  • Sweating: the person may perspire profusely during the night.
  • Difficulty waking up: during a night terror, the sleeper may appear to be awake with eyes open. What's more, once awake, they may have no recollection of the episode.
  • No recollection of the event: the person who has experienced a night terror generally has no recollection of the event the following morning.

It's important to note that night terrors are different from nightmares. Nightmares occur during REM sleep, usually later in the night, and are often recalled upon awakening.


Causes and symptom of night terror

Night terrors affect almost half of children up to the age of 4. They are much less frequent when the child reaches the age of 5 years. Night terrors in children can have causes of very different origins. It is therefore necessary to distinguish between:

Causes of physical origin (breathing difficulties such as asthma, ENT obstruction such as obstructive sleep apnea, a bout of fever due to an infectious disease or sometimes the taking of certain medications, etc.).

Causes of hereditary origin.

Event causes (a state of fatigue due to changes in the daily life of the child).

Anxiogenic events (change of nanny, arguments between parents, moving house, abrupt end of the nap, etc.) which can cause nighttime anxiety.

The night terror adolescent or adult is much rarer (less than 5% of the population is affected). The exact causes of this night terror are still unknown. However, we cite the lack of sleep, an excess of stimulating substances in the hours preceding bedtime, and in general a permanent state of stress.

The mechanisms of the night terror

Night terror is a phenomenon that is one of the parasomnies (sleeping troubles). It comes on suddenly and suddenly. The child sits up in bed screaming.

It is found in a seated position, sometimes standing, with its eyes wide open. His words can be incoherent. He is often short of breath, sweaty, and inflamed cheeks. He can sometimes exhibit aggressive behavior. It's hard to get him out of his sleep.

This episode can be very short (a few minutes), but it can also last for half an hour. In the nocturnal terror of the adolescent or adult, one notices on waking a total forgetfulness of the crisis that has occurred, unlike the nightmare which leaves a painful impression and a few scraps of memory.

As with the child, we see that the night terror does not wake him up and that he continues to sleep, even if we see that his eyes are open. Whether in children, adolescents or adults, night terrors can also be accompanied by a sleepwalking phenomenon.

terreurs nocturnes adultes

The treatment of night terrors

None medical treatment is unable to treat children's night terrors, which usually fade over time. These are episodes of sleep disturbances that should be considered transient. The reassurance provided by parents is often enough to get things back on track. It is certain that a good hygiene of life will promote the sleep of the child.

Respecting bedtimes, making sure to avoid games that can excite him or reading scary stories, are all assets for a peaceful sleep.

If the daily conditions of the child's life have been disrupted for any reason, it is also advisable to talk about it with him, in order to reassure him, because change is always disturbing and a source of stress.

When night terrors occur often and end up disturbing the sleep of all family members, then it is best to consult a doctor or pediatrician. The healthcare professional will be better able to reassure the parents and decide on the best course of action.

terreurs nocturnes traitement

Night terror and sleep apnea

Obstructive sleep apnea consists of brief, involuntary pauses in breathing. It is a pathology that generally affects adults, but it can also affect children. It profoundly disturbs sleep, causes snoring and particularly noisy resumption of breathing.

Sometimes sleep apnea is mistaken for night terror. In the latter case, there are now minimally invasive solutions such as orthotics, easy-to-use and discreet medical devices. They free up the airways, the obstruction of which is sometimes responsible for night terrors.

They ensure a continuous and soothed breathing and a restful sleep. A second solution exists. Its principle is to advance the lower jaw (mandible) using an orthosis. This is also to remove any obstruction of the airways by freeing the passage of air through the pharynx.



Night terrors are sleep disorders that often worry parents, but usually disappear after childhood. Night terrors cannot be cured, but can be reduced with a healthy lifestyle. Finally, we must not forget that they can be due to a physical cause such as an obstruction of the respiratory tract, which a doctor will be able to diagnose.
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