Sleep Terrors in Adults and Night Terrors in 2 Year Olds

Have you ever seen someone scream in their sleep and then thrash about like they're being attacked? That is called a sleep terror, and it is quite distinct from a nightmare. Let’s do a deep dive into the distinctions. Because they are different disorders, with different causes, they require different treatments. Both sleep terrors and nightmares are common conditions, so are worth knowing how to identify, and whether treatment is needed.

Sleep Terrors

Sleep terrors were previously called ‘Night terrors,’ but since they can occur any time a person is sleeping, even during the day, we now call them ‘Sleep terrors.’
Sleep terrors are very common in young children, peaking around ages 5 to 7. Adults can also have sleep terrors.

- Occurrence: Happen during non-REM sleep, so more in the first half of the night.
- Behavior: Screaming, flailing, and appearing terrified, though they will not wake up.
- Memory: No recollection of the event in the morning.
- Age Group: Common in young children, particularly around ages 5 to 7, but can also occur in adults.


In contrast, nightmares often involve vivid, scary dreams that people can recall upon waking.

- Occurrence: Happen during REM sleep, likely in the second half of the night.
- Behavior: Vivid, frightening dreams causing the person to wake up.
- Memory: Clear recall of the dream.
- Age Group: Common in children kindergarten age, and adults with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Symptoms and Experiences

Reflecting on my personal experiences, the first episode of sleep paralysis I had was shortly after college during a stressful period. Awakened by my alarm clock, I found myself temporarily paralyzed, unable to move my arm to turn it off for a couple of minutes. This incident underscores how stress and sleep disturbances, common among those suffering from sleep apnea, can act as catalysts for sleep paralysis.

Night Terrors in Young Children

Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are prevalent in young children and peak between the ages of 5 and 7. However, night terrors in 2-year-olds can also occur, characterized by sudden screaming, intense fear, and flailing during sleep. Ensuring that your child gets enough sleep and maintains a regular sleep schedule can help reduce these episodes.

Sleep Terrors in Adults

While less common, sleep terrors can occur in adults. The triggers for adult sleep terrors often include stress, sleep deprivation, and an irregular sleep schedule. Adults experiencing frequent night terrors should consider consulting a healthcare provider for proper management.
Tiffany, a 54 year old woman, had had sleep terrors since childhood. The sleep terrors still occurred regularly, a couple times a month. During the sleep terror she would shout, and flail her arms for a few minutes. The arm movements would be quite forceful. She had once broken her wrist during a sleep terror by whacking it on the bedside table. Another time, she’d inadvertently given her husband a black eye during a sleep terror. Her night terrors were worse when she was especially busy and not getting the sleep she needs.

Managing Sleep Terrors

If your child experiences night terrors, ensuring they get enough sleep is crucial. Children aged 5 to 7 years old need between 9 to 12 hours of sleep. For adults, reducing stress and maintaining a regular sleep schedule can help. Here are some practical steps:

- Regular Sleep Schedule: Establish a consistent sleep routine.
- Sleep Environment: Ensure a safe sleep environment, free of objects that could cause injury during an episode. Remove any bedside tables, or objects hanging on the wall.
- Consult a Specialist: If sleep terrors are frequent and severe, seek advice from a sleep specialist.

Safety and Intervention

During a sleep terror, avoid waking the person, as this can cause further distress. If sleep terrors persist and significantly impact life quality, a healthcare provider may recommend treatment options, including medications or cognitive-behavioral therapy.

By understanding the differences between sleep terrors and nightmares, and knowing how to manage them, you can ensure better sleep health for yourself and your loved ones. At Skilled Sleeper, we are dedicated to providing you with the knowledge and tools needed for a good night's rest.

Become a Skilled Sleeper

Struggling with sleep disturbances such as sleep apnea or sleep paralysis? Our comprehensive "Skilled Sleeper" course, led by Dr. Catherine Darley, offers expert strategies and insights to help you overcome sleep challenges and enhance your sleep quality. This course includes interactive sessions, personalized advice, and practical tools tailored to your specific sleep needs.

Enroll today to start your journey towards restful, uninterrupted sleep. Gain the knowledge and skills you need to master your sleep patterns and enjoy a healthier, more energized life.

About the Author: Dr. Catherine Darley

Dr. Catherine Darley is a pioneering internationally recognized expert in the use of natural, behavioral and lifestyle medicine for the treatment of sleep disorders. Dr. Darley founded the Institute of Naturopathic Sleep Medicine to fill the need for natural, less invasive solutions to a common problem–poor sleep.  

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