My first child was a decent sleeper, and if she called out in her sleep it was usually a quick fix: she lost her blankie, she had to pee, or I forgot to turn on her nightlight. If she needed me, I had a solution.
One night she screamed out in panic, but when I went in to calm her from what seemed like a bad dream, I couldn’t console her. I couldn’t even wake her. My sweet three-year-old daughter was calling for me, but when I told her I was there, she called louder. My daughter would speak in fragmented sentences, ask for items that only she could see in her dream, and get more agitated the more I tried to help. I didn’t know it at the time, but my baby was in the middle of her first night terror.
I quickly learned that night terrors (parasomnia) are not the same as nightmares. A child usually wakes from a bad dream and articulates that they are scared. The memory of a nightmare can linger and create bedtime anxiety, but other than a parent recalling the night’s event, a child may never know they had a night terror.
Unlike nightmares, night terrors happen before a child slips into REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and they generally take place one to two hours after a child initially falls asleep; children who have night terrors are usually between the ages of three and 12. While they can be traumatic to the parent or caregiver watching a child experience one, children often don’t remember having had a night terror.
I, on the other hand, still remember the worry and frustration of not knowing how to comfort my child. My daughter looked and acted terrified, but I had no idea what was happening or what to do. If I touched, shook, or hugged her, she swatted at me. If I said her name or spoke to her at a volume I thought would wake her, she didn’t respond. One night she asked for water but when I handed it to her, she pushed my hand away and knocked the water bottle to the floor. We did this back and forth exchange of confusion for up to 30 minutes before she finally slumped back onto her bed and went quiet.
I was relieved that she was resting peacefully again, but what the fuck?
Sometimes my daughter would walk around her room and frantically look for something. Other times she would yell her siblings’ names as if mad about the injustice one of them caused. But usually her night terrors seemed to come from a place of actual fear, and until I knew what to do, I was scared too.
I eventually learned to just be there to keep her safe, especially when she wandered out of bed. I had to be forward-thinking and move objects out of the way that could be tripped over or bumped into. I shut her bedroom door and I still keep the gate to the top of the stairs closed at night. I also had to trust that she was okay. I hated to see my daughter under so much distress, but my attempts to wake her and make it better were only hurting.
Rachel Busman, Psy.D., clinical psychologist says that attempting to wake a child from a night terror can add to the difficulty of settling back down. “Instead, speak softly and calmly, and gently lead him back to bed. You just need to wait it out.”
Night terrors can be caused by stress, sleeping in a new place, sleep deprivation, fever, or certain medications. Because one of the causes of a night terror is fatigue, Busman, Psy. D., recommends putting your child to bed earlier than usual to prevent an episode. Most children grow out of them by adolescence with little to no harm done, but if your child’s sleep is being too disrupted or if you are worried, consult your child’s pediatrician or medical health provider.
Night terrors tend to run in the family, and my youngest daughter also has them but less frequently. If I ask one of my girls what she remembered from the previous night’s events, she always look at me like I was the one who had stumbled around demanding a toothbrush and umbrella at 12:30 a.m. My oldest child is now eight and hasn’t had an episode in about a year, but she has experienced her younger sister screaming in the middle of the night for money for the ice cream truck.
We have a good laugh about it now, but none of us enjoyed being startled awake by a five-year-old who was pulling open the shades to look out the window to see an ice cream truck that wasn’t there. There was no convincing my youngest child, however. She was determined to find money and a way to get to the sweet treat. I placed her back into bed and within ten minutes she was quiet. One night she was standing over her sleeping twin brother, yelling at him for eating her candy. By the time I got into her room, she had started to pull on his clothes as if shaking him down for stolen goods. Each morning after, she woke up with no recollection of her antics.
Just because kids don’t seem bothered by them, night terrors are still a disruption to sleep. Unfortunately, broken sleep can lead to more night terrors if fatigue settles in. This is not a desirable cycle. There is no one solution, but maintaining the same bedtime routine and wake-up time can help. It’s also important for care givers to keep their child safe during an episode. Be aware of dangers in the room or house and then be a buffer between your child and what could cause them harm.
You can take comfort in knowing night terrors are benign and your child will grow out of them. It sucks to be the person losing sleep while your child aimlessly waves their arms in the air or sits up and stares at you while screaming, but every once in a while you get a funny story out of it.