“How do you deal with night terrors?”
It’s a question I get asked a lot, and one I actually have a lot of experience with.
Two out of my three big kids have had night terrors in the past, and it looks like my small one is prone to them too.
I remember my first experience with night terrors like it was yesterday. I was sure there was something terribly wrong with my then three year old girl.
Eyes wide and wild she screamed for me and when I went to her to pick her up, to rock her in my arms and soothe her back to sleep, she screamed louder frantically yelling ‘don’t touch me! don’t touch me!’ She scrambled to get out of my arms, to get away, and then began screaming for me again. She was inconsolable, yelling all kinds of things that didn’t make sense, and thrashing about. Things were coming, the blanket was grabbing her, she was freezing and boiling. I tried to contain her flailing limbs and soother her but it seemed everything I did made things worse.
In the end I sat on the end of the bed and watched her screaming and crying and I cried too.
I didn’t know what to do to help my girl.
Eventually she calmed down, crawled into my lap, and almost instantly fell asleep.
I held her for a long time that night, watching her sleeping in my arms, making sure that she was ok and wondering what on earth had happened.
In the morning she seemed fine. Tentatively I asked her if she was ok, and what was she upset about last night, but she looked at me with a blank stare. I asked her if she remembered waking up last night, if she remembered being sad and she had no memory of it at all.
That is when I knew it had been a night terror.
What are Night Terrors?
Night terrors are not the same as nightmares. Nightmares generally happen in the later stages of sleep, children wake from a nightmare seeking comfort, and they remember them in the morning.
Night terrors happen during deep sleep or the transition from deep sleep to REM sleep, usually in the first two or three hours of sleep. Children may appear to be awake with their eyes open and moving around but they are really asleep, they don’t respond to comfort, and don’t have any recollection of the event in the morning.
Night terrors are pretty common with many children between the ages of 3 and 6 experiencing them at least once. Some children go through a phase of night terrors, but most grow out of them without any intervention or long term affects.
How do you deal with Night Terrors?
There doesn’t seem to be any one definite cause for night terrors so it’s not easy to prevent them, but there are a few things that might help before, and during a night terror and lots of ideas you can try.
Look for possible triggers.
Overheating – A warmer than expected night, too many blankets… overheating in bed seemed to be the number one trigger for one of my kids.
Food sensitivities or issues – Are they eating enough? Are they sensitive to some foods or additives? Are they eating too close to bed time?
Too much stimulation – too much stimulation right before bedtime from screens or wild play may be a trigger for night terrors. Try a longer, calming bedtime routine.
Over-tiredness – being over tired can interfere with normal sleep patterns which may trigger night terrors
Noise/disturbances – it is thought that being disturbed at the wrong time during a sleep cycle could be a trigger for night terrors so look for noises or other disturbances that you could avoid.
Stresses and worries – Some people believe anxiety or stress can bring on night terrors so it’s worth looking at whether there is something bothering your child.
Check for sleep apnoea or a blocked nose – some researchers suggest that mild sleep apnoea due to large tonsils, allergies or colds may trigger night terrors so it is something to have checked out if they are recurrent.
Don’t try to wake the child.
Waking the child during a night terror can leave them disoriented and upset, adding to the whole situation and making it even harder to get them back to sleep. I know it is horrible to watch your child in distress but remind yourself that they are not actually awake and that they won’t remember what is happening. Don’t turn on all the lights (though a night light may help you see what is going on and keep them safe), remain close by and try to stay as calm as possible. Soothing words and gentle touch, if tolerated, can help dissipate a night terror.
Keep them safe.
You can’t fix a night terror, instead your job is to keep your child safe. Make sure they are in a safe area and can’t hurt themselves or put themselves in danger. If they are prone to night terrors make sure there is nothing in or near their bed they could hurt them if they have a night terror. We’ve had to physically restrain a child from running outside in the middle of the night on more than one occasion!
Don’t discuss it.
Most children don’t have any memory of a night terror (which is how you know it was not a nightmare) so talking about it in the morning can cause them stress and anxiety that they wouldn’t otherwise have, which may trigger more sleep problems. In the early days a tentative check to confirm they don’t remember and that it was a night terror is all you need to do.
Remedies to try.
Take them to the toilet – we discovered that what disturbed the sleep cycle and caused the night terror with one of our children was needing to go to the toilet. If at the first sign of a night terror I physically took him to the toilet he’d often wee, relax, and go right back to sleep.
Change their body temperature – cool down the room, or put a cool (not cold) face cloth on their feet.
Wake them up 15 minutes before the night terror usually happens to try and alter their sleep cycle
Try guided relaxation or meditation with your kids to help them relax, or just spend some time chatting with them before bedtime and give them a chance to talk about and process any worries.
Try white noise or low classical music to block out any sound disturbances.
How do you deal with night terrors?
Do your kids have night terrors?
Have you been able to figure out what causes them for your kids?
Or perhaps you have a remedy that has worked for you?
Share your stories and suggestions in the comments.