How to Deal with Night Terrors in Children

This is a topic that has been on my mind quite a bit recently.  Some time back I asked a question about when toddlers stop napping completely because it seemed like Gavin was trying to drop his afternoon nap.  Well, he is still fighting the afternoon naps unless he falls asleep in the car or if he’s really, really tired.  Aside from those incidences, getting him to sleep has been an extremely exhausting event.

More and more, I find myself allowing him to wake up late in the morning, skip his afternoon nap and sleep earlier in the evening.  Usually by then he’s so tired, he hasn’t the energy to resist being settled to sleep.  Occasionally, he still wakes up too early in the morning to make it through a whole day without sleep and I have no choice but to force the afternoon nap.

Although the plan to let him sleep late, skip the nap and sleep early is generally a good one, there are times when it falls apart on us.  The main problem I see with it is because we keep shifting him backwards and forwards between taking the afternoon nap (for evenings when we plan to go out) and skipping it (for quiet evenings at home).  I think the constant changes in sleep patterns is too disruptive for a toddler like Gavin to take into stride.  As a result, on the first day when we attempt to shift him back to the “no-afternoon-nap” schedule, he sometimes wakes up from night terrors about an hour after falling asleep in the evening.

Unfortunately, if we do succeed in getting him to take the afternoon nap, he usually ends up sleeping really late – 11pm, midnight and sometimes past 12am.  We have yet to discover a sleep routine that Gavin accepts willingly.  Right now, lights out and the mere mention of sleep or the fact that he looks tired usually ignites a tantrum.

So until I figure out how to manage his sleep schedule satisfactorily, I’ve no choice but to learn how to deal with the night terrors…

Night Terror or Nightmare?

To understand a night terror and how to deal with it appropriately, it is important to be able to distinguish a night terror from a nightmare. A nightmare is merely a bad dream and is easily managed, however, night terrors need to be dealt with differently.

During sleep, a person goes through 5 different phases of sleep – REM phase and 4 non-REM phases. REM stands for rapid eye movement and is the phase of sleep where regular dreams and nightmares occur. REM is the lightest phase of sleep and a person enters it several times during the night. The REM phase is also the last phase we enter before waking – which is the reason why we sometimes remember our last dream.

When a person is in the REM phase, there is a noticeable twitching movement of the eyes under closed lids (hence the term rapid eye movement), and the voluntary muscles of the body are usually paralysed. This paralysis of the muscles protects individuals from harming themselves in their sleep while dreaming.

A person having a nightmare is in the REM phase of sleep – the lightest phase – and are therefore usually easily woken and calmed. When asked, they can usually remember what the nightmare was about.

Unlike nightmares, night terrors occur during the fourth phase of sleep. The fourth phase of sleep is the deepest phase of sleep which is the reason why it is usually very difficult to wake a person having a night terror. Additionally, there is no protection from paralysis of the voluntary muscles during the fourth phase of sleep therefore a person experiencing a night terror can hurt himself or herself. This is part of the danger of a night terror.

A child experiencing a night terror may sit upright in bed with their eyes wide open however he or she is neither awake nor asleep. With night terrors, there is usually no recall of the experience or what it was about. Night terrors occur usually within the first four hours of falling asleep and can last anywhere between 5 to 30 minutes. Once the night terror is over, the child will return to normal sleep.

Night terrors generally occur in young children and are thought to be due to an immature sleep pattern. The good news is that children do eventually outgrow night terrors as they get older.

How to Deal with Night Terrors in Children

Firstly, you need to differentiate between a night terror and a nightmare.  Both require different handling.  With a nightmare, you should wake your child, comfort him and then help him get back to sleep.  A child who is simply having a nightmare is easily awoken and can be calmed by the presence of an adult.

Children experiencing night terrors, on the other hand, may appear to be awake but unresponsive to anything you say.  If it is a night terror, do not wake your child as it usually makes them more agitated and afraid as a result of your reaction to the night terror. Since they won’t remember the episode, there is little point in waking them only to startle them further. Night terrors are generally more alarming to parents than they are to the child and it might be reassuring to note that there are no known painful or negative after effects from having a night terror.

The most important thing to do with a child having a night terror is to ensure he is safe. Remember that night terrors occur in the fourth phase of sleep and children can easily harm themselves through any violent movements – thrashing around, running through the house, etc. You should also try to comfort them by holding them and speaking to them. Although the child may not be fully conscious, he or she can still hear your voice and be calmed by it. Once the night terror is over, help your child return to sleep.

Night terrors do not require treatment, however, in very severe cases, some doctors may recommend medication. Aside from soothing and keeping your child safe, you can adopt the following practices to help prevent or reduce the likelihood of night terrors:

  1. Establish a good bedtime routine.
  2. Ensure that your child has sufficient sleep with appropriate naps during the day before your child becomes overtired. It has been found that night terrors are often triggered when a child becomes overtired.
  3. Minimise stress by dealing with any problems at home or in school.

Published by Shen-Li

SHEN-LI LEE is the author of “Brainchild: Secrets to Unlocking Your Child’s Potential”. She is also the founder of Figur8.net (a website on parenting, education, child development) and RightBrainChild.com (a website on Right Brain Education, cognitive development, and maximising potentials). In her spare time, she blogs on Forty, Fit & Fed, and Back to Basics.

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