When Night Terrors Strike
One of the cruel ironies of parenthood is that sleeping through the night doesn’t actually happen the moment your child no longer requires frequent feedings. It’s the carrot people dangle in front of you to help you cope with sleep deprivation, but the truth is that childhood is full of ups and downs, and with ups and downs comes sleep disturbance.
Night terrors affect roughly 1-6% of children, with boys and girls equally affected. It is generally found in children between the ages of 3-12 with a peak onset of 3 1/2, but it can manifest much sooner and last into the teen years in some cases. My son experienced his first night terror at 18 months, and at 4 1/2; he is still prone to these nighttime episodes.
It’s important to know what a night terror is so that you can differentiate it from a nightmare.
- Rapid breathing
- Increased heart rate
- Eyes open but unaware of your presence
- Pupils may appear dilated
- Child appears panicked and difficult to wake
- Can include sleep walking and thrashing around the bed
Children are not awake during night terrors and will have no recollection of the event in the morning, making these episodes more traumatizing for the parent than the child.
Causes of night terrors:
- Exhaustion is a frequent culprit
- Medications that affect the central nervous system
Although the best advice is generally to sit near your child and providing soothing words during the event, there are a few things you can do to help prevent night terrors and to help your child during an episode.
Tips for coping with night terrors:
Stick to a routine:
If your child is prone to night terrors, routine is essential. Exhaustion is often the main culprit of night terrors, and a finely tuned routine, which includes a specific bedtime, is the best defense. Create a simple bedtime routine and stick to it, even on vacations and during long breaks from school. The more consistent your child’s schedule, the more sleep he will get.
Try not to wake:
As terrifying as a night terror is for the parent watching the event, the child is generally completely unaware. If a child happens to wake during the event, ask him if he wants to be held or simply rub his back while repeating, “It’s ok, mommy is here.” Rousing a child from a night terror is likely to cause fear and intensify the experience.
Keep your voice low and soothing. Repeat the same sentence over and over again. Allow filtered light to enter the room through a cracked door, but avoid overhead lights and lamps.
If your child is prone to sleep walking or thrashing around during night terrors, take a look around to determine safety needs. A gate at the top of the stairs will prevent a child from toppling down the stairs. Removing a bedside table might prevent a head injury. Consider extra pillows to line a wooden headboard. Keep the side rails, even if you think your child has outgrown them.
Bring back the nap:
Believe me, I know how hard it can be to convince a child to nap once he decides he no longer needs them. But exhaustion causes night terrors. My son still naps for close to two hours per day. When he doesn’t, he has at least one night terror. Call it a break, call it quiet time, call it whatever you want – just put on some soothing music and try to help your child rest for an hour each day to help prevent further night terrors.
Share the information:
Make sure grandparents, babysitters, and all other caregivers know how to spot a night terror, what to do, and that it’s a possibility for your child.
Has your child ever experienced a night terror?