Now, I’m not talking about anything Halloween related, although I am talking about things that go bump in the night. I’m talking about something much more serious. I’m talking about children that scream and fight an opponent that isn’t there; I’m talking about parents who try and comfort their screaming child with tear-filled eyes while that child blindly fights them off, calling for help and accepting none.
I’m talking about night terrors.
If you don’t know the difference between nightmares and night terrors, odds are you’re dealing with nightmares. I’m so glad for you. I wouldn’t wish night terrors on my worst enemy. Not because they’re so hard on the child – really, in my experience, they don’t remember anything the next day; it’s mom and dad who don’t get to forget. Night terrors in children are very rare, and reportedly they’re most common in boys, but actually all the cases that I know of are girls.
The subject was brought up in my mind last night, when Jackson – who has been having a hard time sleeping through the night lately – suddenly started crying in his sleep. Chris had him in his arms already and after a moment of rocking and shushing, Jackson was silently snoozing again.
“Maybe he has night terrors, like Nicole.” Chris suggested.
“You know the difference,” I softly chided him, feeling a little ill at the thought. We were both quiet a moment, and he leaned over and kissed Jackson’s head. “Yeah,” he whispered as we both remembered long nights with our oldest daughter.
Six months to a year old. Not very frequent, but she occasionally has nights where she screams and flails like she is fighting someone off. She won’t look directly at us or respond to her voice. We think it might be a food intolerance or gas.
Two years old. Screaming, “No! No! No!” over and over in her sleep and thrashing violently. She seems like she should be awake, but she can’t be awake because she won’t respond to us. We learn it’s night terrors, and we wring our hands anxiously and try to wake her up because once she wakes up she will calm down and go back to sleep. It’s so hard because she acts like we are attacking her. She calls for us with panic and fear in her voice even as she fights us off. We feel sick to the stomach. Sometimes she will recognize one of us but not the other, but sometimes neither of us, so we try switching back and forth. As she gets older it gets more frequent.
Three years old. We eventually figure out that they happen most often in times of transition and stress, or if she’s over tired. Those times when most parents smile and nod and say, “Little Timmy is going to sleep great tonight!” we look at each other with trepidation and offer up a silent prayer. When it happens we are tired and stressed and worn thin. She is happy as a clam and doesn’t ever remember having nightmares the morning after. She occasionally has nightmares as well, but those we can wake her from immediately and she tells us some horrible story, like that Papa ate her yoghurt. (True story. She didn’t have much to be scared of, apparently, because that was honest to goodness a nightmare she had… and at the time, she didn’t even like yoghurt.)
Four years old. They’re eventually less and less frequent. We have a strategy now, and it works. As soon as she starts moaning and thrashing and saying no, we’re off like a shot. Chris goes to her while I start the laptop, put it on a chair near her bed, start up the movie Bolt. Volume down, laptop set to shut off in half an hour. She gradually wakes up and then falls asleep again before its shut off. Mostly they just occur when she’s had an extra busy day, but occasionally they are just out of the blue.
Over the next year or two they taper off, and by the time she’s six we can’t remember the last time she had night terrors. She has the occasional nightmare, but we can wake her up right away and she can tell us the nightmare. We reassure her, she grumbles and goes back to sleep.
So, what are night terrors? Here’s a fancy explanation pulled from Wikipedia.
A night terror, sleep terror or pavor nocturnus is a parasomnia disorder, causing feelings of terror or dread, and typically occurring in the first few hours of sleep during stage 3 or 4 non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep. Night terrors tend to happen during periods of arousal from delta sleep, also known as slow wave sleep. During the first half of a sleep cycle, delta sleep occurs most often, which indicates that people with more delta sleep activity are more prone to night terrors. However, they can also occur during daytime naps.
Night terrors have been known since the ancient times, although it was impossible to differentiate them from nightmares until rapid eye movement was discovered. While nightmares (bad dreams that cause feelings of horror or fear) are relatively common during childhood, night terrors occur less frequently according to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. The prevalence of sleep terror episodes has been estimated at 1%-6% among children and at less than 1% of adults. Night terrors can often be mistaken for the disorder of confusional arousal. Sleep terrors begin between ages 3 and 12 years and then usually dissipate during adolescence. In adults, they most commonly occur between the ages of 20 to 30. Though the frequency and severity vary between individuals, the episodes can occur in intervals of days or weeks, but can also occur over consecutive nights or multiple times in one night.
Night terrors are largely unknown to most people, creating the notion that any type of nocturnal attack or nightmare can be confused with and reported as a night terror.
Obviously, with Nicole they started and apparently ended earlier than they were supposed to. We only found out what they were because her five-years-older cousin suffers from them as well. I haven’t asked her mom recently so I don’t know if they’re still an issue, but I do know that she continued to have them at a much older age than Nicole. And how can you recognize a night terror?
The universal feature of night terrors is inconsolability. During night terror bouts, patients are usually described as ‘bolting upright’ with their eyes wide open and a look of fear and panic on their face. They will often scream. Further, they will usually sweat, exhibit rapid respiration, and have a rapid heart rate (autonomic signs). In some cases, individuals are likely to have even more elaborate motor activity, such as a thrashing of limbs—which may include punching, swinging, or fleeing motions. There is a sense that the individual is trying to protect themselves and/or escape from a possible threat which can lead to physical injury of the individual. Although children may seem to be awake during a night terror, they will appear confused, be inconsolable and/or unresponsive to attempts to communicate with them, and may not recognize others familiar to them. Occasionally, when a person with a night terror is awoken, they will lash out at the person which can be dangerous for that individual. Most people who experience this disorder are amnesic, or partially amnesic from the incident the next day. Sleepwalking is another predisposition for the disorder. Sleepwalking and night terrors are different manifestations of the same parasomnia disorder.
In adults, night terrors can be a sign of other mental or sleep disorders, but in children it isn’t linked to an increase in diagnosis. So what does it mean if you suspect your child has night terrors? It means you as the parent should seek help and support. Consult your child’s doctor, especially if the night terrors are causing them to lose a lot of sleep. Don’t let yourself be wracked with guilt and stress over it. In young children, it’s generally not something they remember at all. Tag team with your partner. Plan a strategy for dealing with it. Don’t panic. I’m not an expert, I’m just some random mom on the internet who made it through a few years of them with her daughter. You’re more than welcome to get in contact with me for support, though.
And while I don’t tend to recommend TV as a solution, I have to say, it worked really well for Nicole to watch a bit of her favourite movie. Perhaps I will be burned at the perfect-parent-internet-stake over it, but I don’t care. Given the choice between trying to comfort a child who acts like she is being attacked while she screams for help whether or not I try comfort her, or putting her favourite movie in front of her when I know it will help, I would choose Bolt the Wonderdog over and over. She calmed down much faster with the movie than she ever did without it. I’m not sure what led me to try it, but it was just something I tried at my wits end one night and much to our surprise, it worked, and it worked consistently. It became our go-to strategy. One of us would go to her, the other would get the laptop, and it worked every time.
Maybe that’s why that movie always makes me tear up a little.