I have written about Night Terrors for other blogs, but never for this one and I figured it was about time! My introduction to night terrors was about 5 years ago when my daughter was around 3. One night I heard her yelling and crying so I went quickly to her room. She was normally a very good sleeper, so this was strange. She was calling for me, and when I told her I was there and tried to hug her, she kicked and hit me and yelled “No, I want Mommy!!”. At this point, I was trying to figure out if she was possessed or just being a big pain! I later discovered it was neither, she had no idea what was going on, and there was no proof this was caused by a ghost!!
A night terror is a parasomnia disorder, like sleepwalking. Night terrors occur when a child is in Non-REM sleep (nightmares happen in REM sleep) and is transitioning from one sleep stage to another. Although night terrors can be upsetting for the adults in the child’s life, the child does not remember what has happened and they cause no harm.
There are several causes of night terrors, the most common being that your child is overtired. Other causes can be medication your child is taking, fever, or sleep disorders. I encourage you to mention night terrors to your pediatrician, especially if they happen often, and you notice other issues with your child’s sleep, such as snoring, restless sleeping, or frequent night wakening. These together with night terrors could be an indication of a sleep disorder.
What should you do if your child has a night terror?
The first thing I would do if your child has a night terror for the first time is think back to if their bedtime was a little later than normal or if you child’s nap was shorter than normal. If any of these factors were the case, just be sure to make bedtime a little earlier the next night. If none of them seem to be the case, wait and see if it happens again. If it doesn’t, do not worry about it. If it continues happening, read below for some tips, and be sure to mention it to your child’s doctor as it could be a sign of something else going on.
Try not to touch your child while they are having a night terrors. Physical contact can actually prolong the terror. If they are however, getting out of bed, or falling out of bed, it is fine to put them back in. I have also heard from a few people that picking their child up and sitting them on the toilet has gotten them out of the night terror.
Also check the temperature of your child’s room at night. It is better for us to sleep in cooler temperatures, from 65 to 72 degrees and I have heard from one family whose child stopped having night terrors once they turned down the temperature at night.
If your child regularly has night terrors at the same time (or at the same length of time from bedtime), you can wake them up around 15 minutes before that time to reset their body clock. After doing this for a week or so, stop doing it and see if your child still has night terrors.
My daughter still occasionally has a night terror. The other night she came to my bed crying. I asked her if something was bothering her and she told me her brother was. Her brother was sleeping, so I thought maybe she was having a dream. I put her back in bed, told her I’d tell her brother to stop bothering her, and she was asleep immediately. Since she fell asleep so quickly, I’m not positive she was ever really awake. So even I, as someone who as studies this, isn’t totally sure all the time whether a night waking is a night terror or a nightmare!