This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 03 table of contents.


Nightmares come in several varieties that are quite distinct. One variety, the night terror, is most common in children. Doctors know the night terror by its Latin name pavor nocturnus It is characterized by difficulty breathing, hallucinations, feelings of paralysis, screams, and panic-stricken sleepwalking.

What are night terrors, and why are they alarming to parents?

Parents of a child who has night terrors are shocked to find that they cannot awaken or comfort a child who is writhing on the floor screaming. Some children have such an attack every night around the same time (at 1 a.m., for example). After a night terror, the child resumes normal sleep without ever awakening. The child does not remember the attack in the morning and seems unharmed by the experience. It affects mainly the concerned parents, who may find it difficult to believe nothing harmful is going on. This pattern can continue for a period of months, then the attacks stop for no apparent reason. Children just grow out of it.

Here is how one set of researchers described night terrors:

In pavor nocturnus, the child usually sits up in bed, screams, yells out or moans, continues crying, and speaks unintelligibly. Eyes may be open and there is evidence of increased sympathetic activity including rapid, deep respirations, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and marked perspiration. The child thrashes about and appears terrified, upset, and/or in pain; nevertheless, he remains inconsolable. This lasts from several minutes to one-half hour after which the child calms rapidly and falls asleep. Trying to hold or restrain the child may actually intensify the outbursts.

...Parents should be reassured that night terrors are well known, common phenomena and usually represent no serious organic or psychological disturbance. (Ferber & Rivinus, 1979, in Webb, 1981, p.47)

What are typical features of nightmares triggered by sleep apneas? What is an "anxiety nightmare" and during what phase of sleep does it occur?

Night terrors tend to occur in non-REM sleep. Another type of non-REM nightmare is the suffocation nightmare, which may be accompanied by a dream of choking, drowning, or having something heavy placed on the chest. It is triggered by sleep apnea s as discussed above.

Far more common than either the night terror or the apnea nightmare is the so-called anxiety nightmare. This is simply a bad dream of the ordinary variety: a dream with scary or unpleasant content. It tends to occur during REM sleep, so it is sometimes called an REM sleep nightmare.

Certain types of anxiety nightmares are very common. At least ten people have written to my web site over a period of years asking about dreams in which teeth crumble or fall out. Apparently that is simply a common nightmare for humans. Perhaps we all remember the sensations of losing a tooth from early childhood. Other common anxiety nightmares include tornadoes (in North America) or monsoon storms (in Southeast Asia), being attacked or chased by wild beasts, and being unable to perform some simple activity such as running.

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