How to Handle Night Terrors {Motivation Monday} | Confessions of a Stay-At-Home Mom

May 5, 2013

How to Handle Night Terrors {Motivation Monday}

::I am not a medical professional. I am just sharing what I've learned in my experience dealing with a child who has night terrors::

It starts with an unexpected whimper a few hours after you've put your child too bed. Soon the whimper turns into a cry, then a scream. The unsuspecting parents race up to their child's room, convinced something awful is happening. Instead they find their child is having a night terror. Night terrors are a somewhat common phenomenon in children ages 3-7 (more often boys than girls). Many find the terrors peak at age 4 and dissipate slowly over time, although some kids struggle with them consistently through the early childhood years.

Sometimes, as a parent, our motivation to be better is equipping ourselves with the right tools and knowledge to address the needs in our children's lives. When night terrors first started with Chica, I had no idea what was going on and, to be quite honest, it scared the living crap out of me.  Now that she is almost 5 years old, the night terrors are few and far between, unless a trigger causes one. I've been asked several times how I've handled Chica's night terrors. I've done a TON of research, asked a LOT of questions and learned through trial and error. I'd like to share what I've learned so that other parents kind find the resources they need to cope with night terrors in their families.

What is a night terror?

Many people mistake night terrors for nightmares, but they are distinctly different. Night terrors happen in a non-REM cycle of sleep, a deeper cycle of sleep. Nightmares happen during the lighter REM sleep, which is when we dream. Night terrors most often occur in the first 2-3 hours after a child falls asleep, whereas nightmares happen usually in the second half of a night or closer to morning. Chica's night terrors almost always happen between 9:30pm and 11pm, and she falls asleep sometime around 7:30pm. 

What does a night terror look like?

When Chica has a night terror, she screams or crys. Sometimes it seems like she is in pain or very, very frightened. She will kick and flail. If we try to interact with her, she gets more agitated. Sometimes her eyes are wide open and it seems as though she is awake when, in fact, she is in a very deep cycle of sleep. Chica will say things like, "NO!"  Some children who have night terrors also sleepwalk. A night terror can look different in different kids. 

What is the difference between a night terror and a nightmare?

As stated earlier, the occurrences happen during different cycles of sleep as well as different times of night. You will find that a child having a nightmare can "wake up" from the nightmare, while a child having a night terror stays stuck in their deep sleep cycle. How you handle a night terror (which I'll talk about in a minute) is different how you might handle a nightmare. Because of the sleep cycles they occur in, kids can remember details of nightmares or continue to feel the fear long after they've woken up (much like dreams). The good thing about night terrors is that once kids go abck to sleep, they usually wake up not able to recall even having had an episode. 

What causes night terrors?

There are different triggers for different kids. Some kids don't have any recognizable triggers. Some triggers are similar to those of nightmares (fears, scary movies, etc). Big triggers for night terrors include: stress, being overtired, fever or needing to go to the bathroom. Chica sometimes has night terrors if she is very overtired going to bed. Some nights, after a particualrly rigorous day, I know a night terror might come on. There are other times when she is stressed about something and it manifests itself in a night terror. While she was potty-training, we found that if she had to go to the bathroom at night, it would disrupt her sleep and she would have a nightmare before wetting or soiling her bed.

How do you handle a night terror?

Every parent handles this differently, but after my research we've have adjusted how we handle Chica's night terrors.  Many parents treat night terrors like nightmares, by going in and trying to help their child wake up and comfort them. While this sentiment is nice, these actions often work to make night terrors worse for the child. Due to the deep non-REM sleep cycle, it is VERY difficult to wake the child who is having a night terror. So every touch or spoken word actually becomes part of their night terror, serving to further agitate the child. We've found this to be true of Chica. We used to go in and try to wake and comfort her. She would get more upset, scream and kick. If her eyes were open, she would look at us wildly as though she did not recognize us. In reality, she was not awake. She was not seeing us. 

We've found the best way to handle night terrors is to go in, check that she is safe, that she hasn't wet the bed (which is sometimes a trigger), and that she wasn't sick. If all of those are in check, we quietly leave the room and shut the door. I usually sit out in the hallway just to make sure she gets through the night terror (because it does break my heart to hear her so upset!). Even though it seems like an eternity, if we let her just work out the night terror, the spell only lasts about 10-15 minutes. Then she goes back to sleep and is usually fine until morning. 

Tips on overcoming night terrors

Generally, night terrors are a season in your child's life, and you will just have to work through them until they stop occurring. You can work to identify the triggers of your child's night terrors, and try to avoid or eliminate them:

1) If your child is stressed or fearful, talk through the stress or fear. Help him identify what is bothering him and process ways to address it. Working with a child therapist can be very helpful.

2) If your child is overtired, you can put her to bed earlier. Or keep the hour before bedtime calm (no TV or no overly-stimulating activities).

3) Make sure your child has gone to the bathroom before getting into bed.

4) Try to stay on a regular daily schedule.

I hope this helps!  In the end, I stick by my parenting mantra for all things: do what works best for YOU and YOUR CHILD. Over time, your child will overcome his or her night terrors. If you are concerned or what medical advice, I strongly recommend talking with your pediatrician.

Does your child have night terrors?
How do you handle them? 
What tips/advice can you give to other parents?


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