When my youngest was two, he’d wake up screaming, walk downstairs, and claw at himself. The first time this happened, I was petrified. He’d woken me up out of a deep sleep . I was so disoriented, I literally thought someone was in his room and had traumatized him by the way he was acting.
I’d never seen him like this — I was trying to talk to him, but he clearly could not hear me. His eyes were looking at me, his eyes unfocused, and after a few minutes it appeared as if he was looking right through me. Nothing I did was able to calm him down. This lasted about five minutes (it felt like an hour). Then, he fell back to sleep.
A few hours later, he woke up again crying, pulling at his face and pajamas, and acting like he was possessed. This episode was worse than the first one and I was starting to panic wondering what was wrong with my child. This was not a bad dream, or a stomachache, or a case of waking up and feeling confused. This was like nothing I’d ever seen as a mother to three young kids.
It was Christmas night, and I hated to bother the pediatrician on call, but I was so distraught and didn’t know what else to do. After talking me through it, she said she had a feeling it might be night terrors, a term I’d never heard of.
She assured me he wasn’t awake, and he probably wouldn’t even remember the experience the next day. She instructed me to not wake him up, or try to talk to him if it happened again. “Just lead him back to bed without talking, and sit there until he goes back to sleep.”
Our doctor was right; he never remembered anything the next day, nor did he seem tired, or affected much by these terrors. I certainly was though. This went on and on and on. These episodes didn’t happen every night, but almost every night. He’d wake up around the same time, then I’d lead him to back to bed. There were nights when it took longer than others. It affected my sleep, yes, but more than that, I was really worried. I was worried that he was going to hurt himself. I was worried I wasn’t going to see or hear him one night. I was worried he’d fall down the stairs.
That never happened, thankfully, but one night we were staying at a lake house and he got out of bed, walked over the sliding doors and fiercely tried to open them. They were locked, of course, but that door led to a very high deck which was really close to the water.
That was it for me — it scared me so much I took him to the doctor as soon as we got home so we could figure this out. My son had been having night terrors for three years, and enough was enough.
Turns out, for my son, sugar was the problem, and I felt horrible I hadn’t put the two together. Our pediatrician suggested we cut back on all sugar after about 3 p.m., and it worked. I noticed the evenings we were at a birthday or dinner party and he’d have dessert, there would always be a bad night in store for us. But, at least we’d found a solution.
It’s important to know that there is a difference between nightmares and night terrors. “Nightmares are scary dreams that awaken your child,” Dr. Amber Teague, Osceola Regional Medical Center’s Pediatric ER Medical Director told Scary Mommy. “They typically occur in the latter half of the evening. The best way for parents to help is to remind children that dreams are not real and to give lots of positive reassurance. A good bedtime routine is helpful as well — the AAP recommends the brush, book, bed method.”
Night terrors are different in that they occur “in the earlier portion of the night, and you child is not actually awake,” says Teague. However, night terrors are scarier to witness, since your child often “thrashes about, or just stares forward.”
Teague says the best thing you can do is not wake your child. “Just be there to keep them safe (like not falling out of bed),” she says. “The child will go back to a calmer stage of sleep and not remember the event.”
Collier offers some tips to try and prevent night terrors suggesting “a really strong pre-sleep wind down, music, and lots of downtime and sleep.” Routines aren’t always that easy to stick to, but they can be really important for a child suffering from night terrors.
“Quality downtime and a strong, precise wake-up at the same time each day can really help your circadian rhythm get back in flow,” says Collier. “Step by step, you can work through night terrors, but should also consider seeking specialist sleep hypnosis if you find that they are really impacting your overall well being.”
So, if your child is being jolted awake at night and seems like they aren’t even the same person, these tips, along with taking a look at the sugar intake might do the trick. I know how scary it can seem at the time, and calling your pediatrician is always a good idea. After talking with our doctor (and my son), I did find peace of mind in the fact he wasn’t remembering any of these scary nights.