Imagine this. Your adorable toddler is finally snoring away in his/her own bed (ok, maybe in your bed, across your pillow with an arm and/or leg angled around your neck, drooling) But, they are asleep! and you are ready to enjoy a hot cup of coffee…wait. nevermind. you have to get up in 6 hours and there is no time for coffee now. maybe you can do some of that laundry? nah. that’s boring. will never finish it until morning anyway. so, that leaves you with making lunches, loading the dishwasher, cleaning up toys or maybe just going to bed. As you grapple with these big decisions, you hear it. the blood curdling screams.
your adorable little one wakes up screaming uncontrollably, confused, sweating with intense fear. you peel him off your pillow and give your best mommy attempts at calming him. He has no idea you are even there. His eyes are open, but he is not aware of his surroundings. This can last up to 30 minutes. He is actually still asleep. The next morning, he does not remember the episode. This is the dreaded night terror. It’s a right of passage for parents everywhere. Right up there with the first supermarket tantrum, the first vomit down your shirt, the first time they get lice and of course the first time you find permanent marker on your wall. I often hear parents refer to these episodes as nightmares. Truth is, there are nightmares and night terrors and they differ in a few ways.
Night terror vs nightmare?
Night terrors tend to occur within the first three hours of the night. Kids usually have little if any memory of them. Nightmares occur during the last third of the night. Kids are more likely to recall details of the nightmare. Night terrors are more common in 3-12 year olds, while nightmares can occur at any age.
The recommendations on how to cope with these sleep issues vary as well. For night terrors, waking the child 20 minutes before the usual time of the episode can help to break the sleep cycle and possibly prevent the terror. It is not necessary to treat nightmares unless your daytime functioning is affected.
Night terrors do not….
-have long-term effects
-indicate psychological disorders
-have a clear cause (although there are some things like anxiety which can make them more likely)
So what should you do during a night terror?
I would say you first try to get your pillow back. Then, remember that you do not need to wake your child or hold him down. You cannot console him and need to simply make sure he is safe. It will pass. Waiting is hard. But you waited 9 long months for this little one. You can do this.
If the night terrors are causing daytime issues, distressing the family unit, are becoming more frequent, make an appointment to see one of us. We are happy to support you and will rule out any underlying conditions. More than likely this is just another, normal developmental milestone.
Please remember that we have a mental health team available to our patients (and non-patients). Dr. Will Dalton (psychologist) and Elizabeth Williams (licensed psychological associate) can address issues such as night terrors, picky eating, phobias, behavioral problems, family disruption, chronic illness, grief, potty training, bullying and many other common challenges we face as parents. Give us a call and we can easily set up an appointment with one of them.
We also have a cunselor as well, Michael Thomas , who is happy to work with you and your children.