My Secret to Alleviating Night Terrors
Unless you have seen your kid having a night terror, I don’t think you can really understand what they are like. More than just a nightmare, a night terror has more in common with sleep walking than dreaming. And they are pretty terrifying.
We first encountered night terrors when Number 2 was between 2 and 3 years old. One night we were sitting on the couch congratulating ourselves on having 3 children under the age of 6 snuggled (and asleep!) in bed by 9.
About two hours after everyone was asleep, we heard a blood-curdling scream from Number 2’s bedroom. We ran up there and he was sitting up in bed, eyes wide open, screaming at the top of his lungs. Then he started flailing about, punching the bed, jumping all around. It was like he was possessed or having some kind of seizure. I wouldn’t have been surprised if his head spun around 360 degrees and he began speaking in demonic voices.
Nothing we did calmed him down. He was screaming for me, but he didn’t even know I was in the room. No amount of hugging, talking, cajoling or frantic calling could calm him down. After about 15 minutes his screams began to subside and he eventually laid down and went back to sleep. The next morning he didn’t remember any of it.
What are night terrors? What we experienced that night, and for many more nights after that (about 1/week for several months) was classic for a childhood night terror. Night terrors occur as children transition from one sleep phase to another, usually occurring during deep, non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep (nightmares occur during REM sleep). For some kids, the transition is not smooth and they react with fear. Night terrors are different from nightmares in other ways:
- They occur about 2-3 hours after your child falls asleep whereas nightmares tend to occur much later after going to sleep (in the wee hours of the morning)
- Children will thrash, scream, sit up in bed, appear scared and/or distressed and you cannot comfort them.
- They cannot be roused.
- Children will not remember having a night terror like they will when they have a nightmare.
- Once they calm down, they fall easily back to sleep. After a nightmare, many children have trouble going back to sleep.
- Night terrors occur in kids aged 3-12, and sometimes in adults, usually aged 20-30. Nightmares are experienced by all ages.
- Night terrors can be somewhat more common in boys.
- Night terrors and sleep walking tend to run in families, suggesting a genetic predisposition.
- While most people have nightmares, night terrors occur in only about 1-6% of the pediatric population (or 2/5 of our children, lucky us).
What causes night terrors. No one is sure why some children get night terrors and others do not (other than the slight genetic component). But night terrors are often observed when:
- kids are overtired or stressed
- when they are taking a new medication
- if they are sleeping in a new place
- with fever
- if a child has an overfull bladder
What the experts say to do. The best thing to do when your child is having a night terror is to just wait it out, but it is very hard to do. If your child thrashes around a lot, you should try and make sure they don’t hurt themselves.
To avoid night terrors, make sure your child is getting enough restful sleep (seems ironic, doesn’t it?). Establish a good bedtime routine that is relaxing.
If the terrors are frequent and disruptive, you can try “scheduled awakenings,” which is successful in 9/10 children when performed correctly. About 15-30 minutes before you expect the night terror, wake your child completely. This is believed to break the cycle. But, it can be tricky to time correctly and you risk having a kid that is wide-awake again for a few hours!
My secret. When Number 2 began having night terrors I scoured the internet for advice, and came across drgreen.com. He had noticed an association between onset of night terrors and the age at which children began toilet training. His hypothesis was that maybe these kids just need to go to the bathroom.
Armed with this info, I prepared myself for the next night terror. When it occurred, I picked him up, carried him to the bathroom, dropped his pants and held him over the toilet. Amazingly, even though he didn’t recognize me, he peed and then settled back in bed and went to sleep.
I started using the trick all the time and it never failed. It also worked for Number 3!
Recurrence of terrors. I was reminded of all this two weeks ago when Number 3 started having night terrors again every night. I am pretty sure they are being triggered by his bout with mono. I lived through the first few nights petrified he was going to dive off his bunk bed before I remembered the trick. Why not try it again?
So the next night when he was screaming and hopping around on his bed, I looked at him and said calmly and sternly, get off the bed and go to the bathroom. After I said it a few times he got down and walked to the bathroom. Then I told him to go to the bathroom. Even though he didn’t seem to know who I was, he used the toilet, flushed it, washed his hands and went back to sleep.
Aha, the trick still worked!
I have to confess though, it didn’t work one night. He got into the bathroom, but then wouldn’t use the toilet. He just ran back and forth like a captured mouse, until eventually the night terror ended.
Night terrors are scary to witness and can be disruptive to the whole household. But once you know what it going on, you can feel more confident in dealing with them.
And also glad to know that you haven’t spawned a devil child.
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