Last night, my 2 yo had his first night terror. My 5 yo has not had them. She’s awoken scared, had nightmares before, but last night was something different. My son came running down the hall, screaming. Blood curdling scream, like the kind that rips you out of a deep sleep in a sense of complete panic. I didn’t know where I was, where he was, I just knew he was terrified and I needed to save him – NOW. He was silhouetted in my bedroom doorway – the hallway nightlight illuminated behind him – he was rigid in fear – looking behind him and I ran to him & picked him up. He was so terrified, gripped my neck in a panic & didn’t even cry for a couple of minutes – I believe he was still sleeping. I just held him & let him know it was okay. In a few minutes, I could tell he’d fully awoken and I helped him back to bed. I told him he’d had a scary dream. I asked him if he remembered it. He said yes. I asked what it was about & he said: “Something was coming. Something scary.” My heart ached for him. I laid next to him while he settled back into sleep – and thankfully he slept peacefully the remainder of the night.
I have had night terrors my whole life. My father had night terrors. I’d always assumed my children would. Yet, when my daughter had not, I thought: hey, maybe we lucked out! Maybe this peaceful, attachment parenting thing really works! You’d think I’d have been ready for this. Yet, when it happened last night, I didn’t feel ready. I empathized with his terror, yet I felt so helpless. I don’t want my children to have night terrors yet I can do nothing to stop it. Its not a good feeling to have.
I’ve posted on message boards & on twitter, sympathizing with & trying to reassure mothers who have experienced night terrors in their children; thinking somehow that my own personal experience would offer some help to them. However, I’m not sure, now, having experienced one with my son, that anything really helps you get comfortable with being awoken by the panicked scream of your child. Experiencing it makes you want to know why & what. All those things that I’ve just gotten used to in myself, and dismissed as just part of my life, now I want to FIX for my baby. Yet, I know this isn’t something to be fixed. It just is what it is. Its not damaging, and its not indicative of anything other a hereditary propensity towards an overactive mind in sleep. There’s some comfort in that.
Over the years, I’ve done some research into night terrors. I’ve wanted to know why I have them, or at least know if other people have had them & what they are like for others.
Unfortunately, the “why’s” of what really causes night terrors are still mostly unknown. Here’s what I do know about night terrors:
They are most common in young children, and usually go away on their own with time (typically by age 12, though many adults have them as well).
There is a hereditary component: Parents who have/had night terrors often have children who experience night terrors.
They occur only in stage 4 (non-REM) sleep (which makes them different from nightmares which happen in any stage of sleep)
They don’t signify an underlying psychological problem.
Some people remember their night terrors after waking, some do not.
People having a night terror are typically not aware of what’s going on around them, and may not be able to be awakened. They may appear awake, breathing quickly, high heart rate, but are still sleeping.
Many people see animals or people threatening them; but the things they see (spiders, etc.) are not the things they are typically afraid of during waking hours.
They tend to happen more often when a person is overtired or over stimulated.
Night terrors on their own are not harmful though they can occur with sleepwalking – so room should be safe from objects on which children could hurt themselves; top-of-stairs gates should be closed.
There is some evidence of a link to hypoglycemia.
Some tips from my own experience:
Comfort & hug the person having the night terror – speak & move gently.
Gently waking is okay, though never force a waking – its sometimes even more frightening to be woken during/after a night terror, because at least in my experience, it takes me time to reacclimatize to “reality” vs. dream state, I’m very agitated (heart rate can get up between 160 – 170 in studies done on night terrors) and I can’t fall back to sleep easily.
Sleeping with an air purifier (for white noise), and no nightlight helps me immensely because my stage 4 sleep is not interrupted by sudden noises or light (these are both triggers for me).
Unfamiliar places tend to trigger my night terrors (say, on vacation). Before sleep in these instances, I make sure to familiarize myself with the room.
I try to eat something small before bed – some yogurt, a banana, etc.
I do hope that my son will outgrow night terrors – he’s only had one so far. And maybe it will be the only one! In the meantime, I feel comfortable that they aren’t damaging, and from my experience, as annoying as they may be long-term, there are certainly worse things someone could live with.
A few sites about night terrors that may be helpful:
Night Terrors Resource Center
Dr. Sears – Night Terrors
Wikipedia: Night Terror/Pavor Nocturnus
National Institute of Health