Hallowe’en, cold and ‘flu season, and Daylight Savings can all disrupt children’s sleep. That disruption can manifest in a few different ways, including those tough nighttime episodes known as night terrors. Before we start, I want to reassure you that night terrors are generally harmless. This is important to remember because they can be really frightening to watch. It can help caregivers to remember that the episode isn’t harming the child even if it looks scary.
Night terrors are a type of sleep disruption called “parasomnia”, and they are similar to sleepwalking. Night terrors are very different than nightmares. Nightmares are scary dreams. Children usually wake up from a nightmare feeling frightened and can recount what the dream was about. During a night terror, children look and act frightened, but they don’t actually wake up all the way, and generally don’t remember it in the morning. A child who is experiencing a night terror may scream or shout, kick and thrash, be hard to awaken, and be inconsolable. They may even sleepwalk (or sleep-run). Although someone having a night terror often looks frightened, they can also act aggressive if they are restrained or startled. My youngest child would punch wildly when she was going through night terrors. It was tough to watch, but with a few strategies, we were able to find ways to manage reduce these scary and frustrating nighttime episodes.
About 40 per cent of kids will have night terrors at some point, and they are more common in girls than in boys. Night terrors usually go away totally by adolescence. Several things can increase the risk of having a night terror:
- Being over-tired
- Disrupted schedule (such as sleep interruptions or travel)
- Family history
Some of the risk factors, like fever and family history, aren’t under our control. But there are a few things that you can do to help manage, reduce or stop night terrors.
Dealing with night terrors
Remember that night terrors look scary, but they don’t harm your child. Because children experiencing night terrors aren’t fully awake, try talking softly and calmly to them until the episode ends. Yelling and shouting can make a night terror worse or can startle the child.
Sleep begets sleep. Night terrors are more common when kids are overtired, and then that can start a cycle of less sleep and more night terrors. Sometimes, having your child get some extra sleep helps stop the cycle. Try getting your child to take an extra nap or try moving bedtime 5 minutes earlier every night until the episodes stop.
Break the cycle. If the night terrors happen at the same time every night, try to gently rouse your child before the episode starts. Set an alarm for 15-20 minutes before the terror normally starts. Gently rub your child’s back until they stir or wake. Sometimes this can change the sleep cycle enough to stop the night terrors from starting. This method doesn’t work for everyone, but parents who have seen success with this method generally see a change within three nights.
Stick to your routine. Make sure your child has a predictable bedtime routine. Children like knowing what to expect, and a calm bedtime routine helps their brain change gears from day to night. Make sure lights are dim and activities are calm and quiet before bed.
Reduce stress. Find out if there is something bothering your child, and help them find ways to reduce sources of stress. Some children find a guided meditation can help them relax and reduce stress before bedtime.
Safety first. If your child is going through routine night terrors, especially ones that are paired with sleepwalking, make sure their environment is safe. For example, move children out of top bunks, or secure baby gates at the top of stairs. Be sure to notify babysitters and other caregivers if a child may have night terrors so that they may also be prepared.
Keep a record. If night terrors are becoming frequent, keep a sleep diary for your child for a week or two. This can help you find patterns. Record when your child went to sleep, if they had a night terror, when the night terror started and how long it lasted. This can be especially helpful for pinpointing if the episodes are happening at a consistent time of night.
In general, night terrors are no cause for concern, but there are a few times when night terrors might be a symptom of another sleep disorder. You may want to speak to your child’s doctor if:
- The episodes last longer than half an hour at a time
- The night terrors become more frequent without improving
- The night terrors routinely disrupt the sleep of the person with the episodes or other family members
- The night terrors lead to safety concerns or injury
- The night terrors continue into teen years or start in adulthood.
Night terrors can disrupt the whole family, especially when the night terrors wake the child’s siblings. With some help, most families can reduce or eliminate night terrors.
Are you still having troubles with your child’s sleep? Let’s work on it.