You’re fast asleep … finally. After years of repeated wakings, your preschooler has settled into a good sleep pattern. The days of the sleep-deprived, stumbling mum are gone. You actually look forward to bedtime again. Then, one night, you’re awakened by a loud thump. Followed by a scream. Then, tears. You rush into your little guy’s room afraid of what you’ll find. And there … right there … is your little guy sitting straight up in his bed, crying. You rush over and hug him, but he doesn’t seem to respond.
Your child may be one of the 5 of every 100 who suffer from night terrors. More intense than a nightmare, school age children sometimes suffer from night terrors if there is a history of night terrors in the family or they are suffering from a fever.
What Exactly is a Night Terror?
Night terrors generally happen when a child is in their deepest sleep. Lasting not more than 10 minutes, they cause primarily physiological responses that the child cannot control, and you cannot ease. Often, the terror will begin with a scream. Then the child may begin to flail wildly or they may run out of their bed and room all together. Even though their eyes are open, they are not awake and will not recognize you or respond to you. This can be pretty scary as a parent, but it’s best not to disrupt them or upset them.
What Can You Do?
The most important thing to do is to stay calm. Your child will not be able to respond to you, so the best thing you can do is follow him around and make sure that he does not hurt himself. When he calms down, you can comfort him and help him back into bed. If night terrors become a common thing in your home, make sure your house is safe for your nighttime wanderer. Make sure there is nothing to trip on and that all doors to the outside are locked. It may also be helpful to shut doors to rooms that could potentially be hazardous to your child. The next morning, you don’t need to bring up the episode with your child. He will not remember it, and you run the risk of upsetting him unnecessarily.
Remember that most kids will outgrow night terrors naturally. Until that time, you can take some preventive measures that some children respond to. One of the best ways to prevent terrors is to ensure that your child is getting enough sleep. Regular sleep patterns can help your child to avoid some of these uncomfortable nights.
What About Nightmares?
A more common occurrence in young kids are nightmares. These are potentially less frightening for the parent because your child will wake up when they are over. Nightmares generally happen in the second half of the night. After a nightmare, a child may wake up crying, but he will wake up. He may remember the dream and talking about it may be comforting. Your child will likely settle with your presence, and you should be able to put him back to sleep.
What Should I Do?
The key difference between nightmares and night terrors is that your child will be responsive by the time you hear him screaming or crying. While you should avoid touching your child during a night terror, feel free to scoop them up and cuddle them immediately after a nightmare.
How Do I Tell the Difference?
If you are unsure what has just occurred, remember that night terrors happen fairly soon after the child goes to sleep, and nightmares happen close to waking time. If you are still not sure, you can try to talk to your child. If he responds to you, he has likely had a nightmare. If he does not seem to hear or see you, just monitor him and care for him as you would while he has a night terror.
The good news is that most children will grow out of both night terrors and nightmares. With understanding and patience, you can help your child feel safe and secure. Your comforting will help your child feel at ease until he outgrows the night terror or nightmare phase.