You find him and he’s shaking; his body is ice cold, he’s sweating and incoherent. He is totally disoriented and knows you’re there, but can’t quite tell you. This is a night terror.
My son had his first night terror when he was just five years old. He wandered into my bedroom while I was watching TV. He had been in a dead sleep for a couple of hours. When he came to the door, he was out. Eyes closed, looking completely asleep, yet his body was acting like he was awake. He was walking and flailing. I called his name, but there was no response. I quickly called my husband up the stairs. I was terrified and had no idea what to do.
Certain he was just having a nightmare, we tried to wake him up but he just slapped our arms away. The temperature of his body frightened me. He was so cold, but sweating. Being completely uneducated, I thought that maybe he was having a seizure. The longer it went on, the more concerned we became. Then almost as suddenly as it came on, it went away and he was waking up.
It was almost like he was coming out of anesthesia. He was groggy, but his heartbeat was slowing down and his fists were no longer clenched. I stroked his hair and face. He was like a little baby. We asked what the nightmare was about. He had no idea what we were talking about. That was scary.
Merriam-Webster defines a nightmare as “a frightening dream that usually awakens the sleeper.” This seemed so much bigger than that, but I didn’t know how much bigger. As soon as we got him back to bed I was on my phone frantically trying to figure out what was happening to my sweet little boy.
The first thing to show up in my search was the Mayo Clinic. This was their explanation:”Sleep terrors are episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep. Also known as night terrors, sleep terrors often are paired with sleepwalking. Like sleepwalking, sleep terrors are considered a parasomnia — an undesired occurrence during sleep. A sleep terror episode usually lasts from seconds to a few minutes, but episodes may last longer.”
Uh, yeah, this was definitely undesirable. Everything else was on point. The next day I asked again what had happened. He still had no memory of what I was talking about. I let it go. He was fine. I didn’t want to scare him.
I was expecting it that next night when he went to sleep. Just as the experts suggested, I put him to bed on time and made our routine nice and calm. I stayed up way too late waiting for him to come into my room. It never happened. After a few days, I thought that it was just an isolated incident. Then a few weeks later in the middle of the night, I heard him screaming.
This night terror was different. The screaming ended, but he began to speak gibberish for quite some time. His body couldn’t stop shaking. It was heartbreaking.
While the terror was happening, his eyes were opening and closing quickly as if he was dreaming. His little hands rubbed his face like he was trying to wake himself up. I did my best to calm him but nothing worked, I just had to wait it out. When it was over, I put him back to bed. I said a quick prayer that it wouldn’t happen again, but it continued.
When the terror comes on, I always bring him into my bed and try to soothe him. He will flail around unable to get comfortable. My husband and I try to hold him, but he’s tough to pin down. It isn’t violent, but it’s unsettling. His poor little body is so confused.
All of a sudden, it just ends. He slowly comes to and wonders where he is. He will hug and kiss me and tell me he loves me and go back to sleep as if nothing ever happened. For him, nothing has happened. He will have no memory of anything.
I, on the other hand, am emotionally and mentally drained. Seeing my baby go through this is a nightmare in and of itself. Knowing that there is nothing I can do makes it worse. But, the most unbearable part is, I don’t know how to stop it from happening. Aside from limiting scary things on TV and staying up too late, according to our pediatrician, he is just going to have to outgrow them. I do, however, find a little comfort in that fact that even subconsciously, he wants his momma.
Night terrors are real and can be a normal part of child development. One day, they will stop. But until then, I will always be there to hold him, stroke his head and love him. And until the next one, I will forever wish him sweet dreams.