Being woken up by a hysterical child who is screaming and kicking in the middle of the night, and being unable to calm them, is probably among one of the worst experiences of being a parent.

The night/sleep terrors is also known as parasomnia. It is often paired with sleepwalking and usually lasts a few seconds to a few minutes. Sleep terrors affect almost 40% of children and a smaller percentage of adults.

Sleep MD medical director Dr Alison Bentley who will be speaking in the upcoming Baby Show says children who experience them are those with a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking.

“Occasionally there is no family history and in those cases, we have no idea why they would suddenly start having night terrors.”

She says they tend to occur more often in stressed patients.

What can parents do?

Ulrich Fegeler, of the German Paediatricians’ Association, says parents should quietly talk to their children, assure them that they are safe and make sure that they do not injure themselves.

“Waking up a child doesn’t make much sense since they would have no orientation and would be bewildered, and it would be difficult for them to fall back to sleep,” Fegeler says.

The South African Society of Sleep Medicine (SASSM) says that in a state of terror, the child’s movements may be rapid, with episodes of running into walls, through windows and out into the street. The flight response may include complex behaviour such as starting a car and driving.

“In some instances trying to stop the subject often leads to violent movements. Although there is amnesia of the event, the subject may have a memory of the imminent danger or specific threats against themselves, family or property,” says Fegeler.

According to the Mayo Clinic - a medical centre in Minnesota, US, sleep terrors aren’t usually a cause for concern as most children outgrow them.

The condition may require treatment if it causes sleep deprivation or poses a safety risk.

Bentley says giving melatonin before bedtime can reduce the number of episodes. Other experts suggest a regular bedtime, less stress and comforting bedtime rituals.

If the night terrors persist, parents are advised to consult their paediatrician.