Updated: Nov 26, 2019
In the last few months or so, I've noticed parents asking about night terrors-- what they are, is their child experiencing them and what to do if they are. I usually provide some one-off advice if I see this topic pop up on social media but I felt this it warrants its own blog. Watching your little one have a terror can be scary and confusing for you as their parent. This should shed on light on how to handle these terrors if and when they happen and how to prevent them from happening moving forward.
A sleep terror is an episode of intense fear and crying. It may also include moaning, flailing, screaming and/or an increase in heart rate. These episodes happen during the non-REM or slow-wave sleep usually prior to midnight. Because they happen during the very deep sleep stage of a sleep cycle, it can be extremely difficult to wake a child during a terror. If they do wake, they will often be confused and not have any recollection of what had just happened. Basically their body is awake but but their mind isn't. Terrors differ from nightmares in that nightmares typically occur after midnight and during the light stage of sleep when we do most of our dreaming. Additionally, a person can usually remember at least part of their nightmare where as with a terror, it's very difficult to know what was just happening.
Generally night terrors occur in children between the ages of 4 and 8 and more frequently in boys. Sometimes they can continue into a child's teenage years. They can also run in the family. They are a normal part of a child's development and not a cause for concern. If you find that the terrors are creating other issues, such as changes in appetite, extreme tiredness during the day or they begin to pose a safety risk, contact your child's doctor.
Terrors can sometimes be caused by illness, stress or a drastic change in your child's life, whether it be positive or negative. They can also happen when your child is sleep deprived. After a few occurrences, make note of what is happening throughout your child's day to determine if there is something specific that could be causing the terrors.
If your child does experience a terror, the best way to help is by not helping at all! Your first instinct will be to wake and comfort him, but this can actually prolong the terror. Talking and touching can make the terror last longer or start over. Be there silently for your child to make sure he doesn't get hurt and don't interact in any way unless absolutely necessary. If the terrors continue for a few nights, shifting bedtime earlier can make a world of difference. Even 15 minutes earlier is enough. Because terrors are often a result of stress or being overtired, those 15 minutes can give your child the extra time to sleep and reset his sleep patterns so that he is in a different stage of the sleep cycle at the time the terrors were typically occurring.
Some parents will also slightly arouse their child about 30 minutes before the terror occurs. This can be a bit of a risk, as you could accidentally wake your child up completely or you could create a bad habit that causes your child to continue to wake at that time even once the terrors have stopped. You would also need to continue with this technique for a few weeks to know whether it's working or not.
If you find that the terrors still continue, be sure to consult with your child's pediatrician as they may be able to guide you in other solutions. Ensuring a good night's sleep is not only extremely beneficial and important for children, it also helps your entire family as well.