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What Is a Night Terror?

I’ll never forget the first night terror in our home. First a blood curdling scream. Then our daughter wandering aimlessly around her room, babbling nonsensical phrases, tears streaming down her face.

She didn’t wake up. She couldn’t wake up.

For twenty minutes we turned on lights, we hugged her, we talked to her…we couldn’t get through. Then just like that, she returned to her bed, her breathing slowed, and she slept peacefully.

In the morning…she remembered nothing.

This is a night terror.

According to the National Sleep Foundation’s 2004 “Sleep in America” poll, nearly 70% of children age 10 or younger experience sleep disturbances of some kind. What parent hasn’t had to comfort their crying child who has awoken from a nightmare, asking to crawl in bed with mommy and daddy? But night terrors are different than nightmares. While a nightmare occurs late at night during the REM stage of sleep and often waken the child completely, a night terror or sleep terror occurs very early in the night, often within the first hour of sleep. In fact, when we hear crying coming from the children’s rooms, we look first to the clock. If it has been exactly an hour since bedtime, we know immediately that a night terror is in progress.

Night terrors do not wake a child, and children are not aware during the event that anything abnormal is occurring. In the morning, your child will have no memory of the night’s events. Our children most often experience night terrors when they are over-tired from a skipped nap or an especially tiring day, but stress, a new sleep environment, or other changes in the child’s daily life may all cause a night terror to occur.

During a night terror, children are not picturing frightening images the way they might in a nightmare. They simply appear to be agitated, scared, or upset. They will likely fuss or cry, and may even move around the room. Night terrors may last moments or several minutes or more. There is nothing that a parent can do to “stop” the night terror. The child must simply be kept safe and allowed to return to a calm state of sleep.

While most night terrors occur in children between 4 and 12 years of age, our daughter began experiencing them around two, and two years later her little brother followed suit. At age five, Emma now very rarely has a terror and instead suffers the occasional nightmare, which she is able to wake from and explain the next day. Noah, on the other hand, is three years old and transitioning from afternoon naps to days with no sleep. His age and change in sleep habits have made him prone to terrors, and he now experiences them as often as a couple of times a week.

For those of you whose children suffer from the occasional night terror, it is likely that you or your spouse experienced them as a child as well. This may make terrors appear common, but in reality, less than 10% of children have them.

The most heart-breaking aspect of night terrors is the parents’ inability to do anything to comfort the child. When I hear the tell-tale wail coming from my son’s room, I run to him and hold him until I hear his breathing slow, then gently place him back in his bed, but this is really just to comfort myself, to feel useful, nurturing. The best thing a parent can do to help a child who experiences night terrors is help that child to keep a consistent sleep routine to prevent an over-tired state. Any stressors in a child’s life – starting a new school, changing caregivers – should also be eased to prevent these sleep disturbances. Parents, take heart. Like most troubling stages of childhood, this too shall pass….

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