What is a Night Terror?
Night terrors are very different from nightmares.
A child having night terrors may scream and thrash around, and may not recognise you if you try to comfort them. This behaviour occurs on waking abruptly from deep, non-dream sleep, also known as non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. Your child won’t be fully awake during these episodes and will have no memory of their behaviour the next morning.
Nightmares occur from dream sleep (REM sleep). They may wake up from the nightmare and, depending on their age, may be able to remember and describe the bad dream to you.
Phoebe has suffered night terrors from around 9 months old. Until she was 2, we attributed various things to it, such as teething, wind, fear of the dark, but I am certain they were actually night terrors. She would seemingly be awake whilst screaming uncontrollably and whenever either me or her dad went near her, the screaming would increase and there was a genuine look of fear in her eyes.
As a parent, there are few things more horrifying than seeing your child look at you with complete and utter fear and horror. Watching them trying to escape from you and screaming for you, despite the fact that you’re standing right in front of them. In the beginning, they would last up to 20 minutes- as a first time parent, I was mortified. I wondered what I had done that was so wrong, had I fed her something poisonous? Had I said something to her? What did I do wrong? I now know, there’s nothing I did, said or fed her that caused this to happen.
Phoebe’s now 4 and she still suffers the occasional one. I’ve got them down to a couple of minutes now. A lot of it is play-it-by-ear, as there’s not really a right or wrong way of dealing with them. The only thing I would say is don’t try to wake them, and certainly don’t shout at them. They ARE NOT awake, even if they are looking at you and communicating with you, they are not conscious.
How Do I Recognise A Night Terror and What Happens During One?
It can be different for different children, but Phoebe’s often begin with her crying in her sleep. Sometimes it’s just the odd whimper, nothing to worry about. I know it’ll escalate into a night terror by the type of crying. She is very restless in her sleep and will start crying. The crying then becomes louder. I’ll go in to her room to see if she’s awake to see if she wants a hug. If I get no response or she begins to cry louder, I know she’s having a night terror.
She will most often be sat upright in bed with a terrified look on her face. She is sat there screaming ‘mommy’ and getting so upset that she begins to cough and gag. Your first instinct as a parent is to comfort her. This is a bad idea. Your child doesn’t see you, it might be that they are seeing (as in Phoebe’s case) a giant spider, or a monster. You aren’t her parent, as soon as she sees you, you become part of the night terror.
Phoebe has a mid-sleeper bed and she has often been known to try to ‘escape’ by actively trying to throw herself off her bed. Restraining her isn’t ideal as it often escalates the night terror further, but her safety is paramount.
So What On Earth Can I Do?
Honestly? There’s no miracle answer. The following things help Phoebe:
- Turn the light on, but don’t approach (unless necessary) and don’t talk
- Wait until the crying/screaming begins to subside before attempting to talk
- DO NOT restrain (unless absolutely necessary)
- Don’t shout, as frightening and sometimes frustrating (especially at 3am) as it can be, it won’t help at all.
Phoebe’s night terrors aren’t a gradual calming down, it’s instant. She will go from a screaming/writhing, seemingly possessed child, to “mummy, my friend at school went to the toilet by herself today”! Once this happens, I ask her if she feels ok or if there’s anything she was worried about. She is often confused as to why she’s been crying or not in bed. I have to explain that she was crying so I came to see if she was ok. I always give her a cuddle and help her back into bed. I repeat the night-time routine we have and she will go back off to sleep.
If your child suffers with night terrors, how do you deal with them? Are you experiences similar? I’d love to know!