Sleep terrors differ from nightmares. The dreamer of a nightmare wakes up from the dream and remembers details, but a person who has a sleep terror episode remains asleep. Children usually don't remember anything about their sleep terrors in the morning. Adults may recall a dream fragment they had during the sleep terrors.

Like sleepwalking and nightmares, sleep terrors are a parasomnia — an undesired occurrence during sleep. Sleep terrors usually occur during the first third of the sleep period.

During a sleep terror episode, a person might:

  • Sit up in bed
  • Scream or shout
  • Kick and thrash
  • Sweat, breathe heavily and have a racing pulse
  • Be hard to awaken
  • Be inconsolable
  • Get out of bed and run around the house
  • Engage in violent behavior (more common in adults)
  • Stare wide-eyed

When to see a doctor

Occasional sleep terrors aren't usually a cause for concern. If your child has sleep terrors, you can simply mention them at a routine well-child exam.

Consult your doctor if your or your child's sleep terrors:

  • Become more frequent
  • Routinely disrupt sleep or the sleep of other family members
  • Cause you or your child to fear going to sleep
  • Lead to dangerous behavior or injury
  • Appear to follow the same pattern each time
Aug. 12, 2011