“Moommmmmy! No! No! NOOOOO! Heeeeeeeelp me!!! HELP ME!!!”
Heart racing, sweaty and shaking, I dashed into my toddler’s room after hearing blood-curdling screams. It was 11:30pm. He was sitting bolt up right in bed, eyes wide open in fear. I scooped him up and held him tight in my arms but he didn’t seem to see me or respond. He thrashed wildly in my arms, shaking and screaming. “No!!! I don’t want it! Make him STOP!!” The combination of sobs and screams overwhelmed me. Was he having a nightmare? His eyes were open! He was talking! What was going on? Suddenly, the screaming stopped, the sobbing slowed and my little boy lay limp in my arms and fell into a deep sleep.
This bizarre episode felt like it lasted for hours but when I looked at the clock, I could hardly believe that only 3 minutes has passed from start to finish of the terrifying scene.
What are night terrors?
A night terror is what happens when your child’s central nervous system is over-aroused during sleep. It’s not a dream, it’s not a nightmare. It happens when your child is transitioning from one stage of sleep to the next. Instead of transitioning smoothly, a small glitch occurs and during this partial awakening, the child acts out highly dramatic fears and upsets.
Although night terrors can be horrifying for parents to watch, children typically have no awareness that it’s happening and don’t remember it the next morning. Part of the reason for this is because it’s not a dream. There are no images to remember that come along with this episode, it’s simply a reaction of the nervous system. Night terrors don’t happen during REM sleep (the time in which we dream), they usually occur when your child is transitioning from deep sleep to lighter, dream sleep. The most common time for night terrors to occur is about 2-3 hours after your child falls asleep.
Signs of Night Terrors
Your child may be experiencing a night terror if she
- Is sitting upright in bed, not realizing where she is or recognizing her surroundings
- Can’t be awakened or comforted
- Is screaming, sobbing, or shrieking in a panicked way
- Is flailing or thrashing around in bed
- Has a racing heartbeat, is sweating or shaking
- After 1-30 minutes, simply lays down and falls back asleep without acknowledging you or anything that just happened
- Has no recollection of the event in the morning
What can you do about them?
During a night terror, there is almost nothing you can do. Wait it out as calmly as you can, reminding yourself that nothing terrible is happening, even though it seems scary. These things happen. If it helps your child, hold him in your arms and make soft, soothing comments. If he resists, let him be, ensuring that he can’t hurt himself. If he’s thrashing around in his bed or room, make sure he doesn’t throw herself against any walls or furniture and prevent access to any stairs. After a few minutes, he will likely fall back asleep with zero awareness of what happened.
Don’t ever shout at your child or shake her during a night terror, This can frighten her and make matters worse. Be the strong one for your child, a place of calm through her storm. Try to gently direct her back to her bed.
Preventing night terrors
While there is no formal treatment for night terrors, there are things you can do to reduce their frequency.
- Avoid overtiredness at all costs. This is a big trigger for night terrors. Keep a consistent bedtime every night and make sure your child is getting enough sleep for her age.
- Reduce as much stress as possible in your child’s life
- If the night terrors occur around the same time each night, wake your child 15-30 minutes before the usual time of the night terror. Take him out of bed for about 5 minutes. Offer to take him to the bathroom- that will help wake him up fully. After a few minutes, put him back to bed and let him fall back asleep. Doing this every night for a week can have a “reset” effect on the nervous system and can help in minimizing the occurrence of night terrors
- If night terrors happen on a consistent basis, talk to your pediatrician to discuss the idea of a referral to a sleep specialist.
- Alert any babysitters of the possibility of a night terror and teach them how to handle it safely and responsibly in case one occurs while you are away.
Risk factors for night terrors
Night terrors are not common. Seriously. They occur in less than 7 percent of children, and usually occur in 3-12 year olds. It’s rare for a child under the age of 3 to have a night terror, although occasionally there are reports of younger toddlers having them as well.
Kids who meet any of the following criteria are at a higher risk of experiencing night terrors:
- Sleep deprivation! This is huge. Remember that night terrors are caused by a glitch in the nervous system, which is directly affected by how much sleep it gets! Overtiredness will cause a host of problems for your child, and increase the risk of night terrors.
- Illness or stress (a new home, new school, new sibling or a divorce)
- Taking a new medication
- Genetics. 80 percent of children with night terrors have a parent who suffered from night terrors or sleep walking themselves.
Speak to your pediatrician if your are concerned about night terrors if your child exhibits strange symptoms during an episode, such as drooling, jerking or stiffening of his body. Never hesitate to bring up a concern with your doctor- you are your child’s only advocate!
Keep in mind that night terrors are generally considered harmless (even though they feel far from it!) and usually pass on their own as your child’s brain and sleep patterns mature. Most night terrors gradually disappear on their own by the age of 12 as the nervous system matures and learns how to transition smoothly between sleep cycles.