If you have a child who has suffered from night terrors, you know how upsetting they are. Your little one appears to be terrified. They’re screaming or crying. They may even be calling to you or asking for help.
Instinctively, you want to stop this from happening as quickly as you can. You want to comfort them and let them know that everything is okay. The problem is that this is not actually the best thing for your child if they are, in fact, in the middle of a night terror. It is the right thing to do to soothe your son or daughter after a nightmare. So, the question is, is your child suffering from a bad nightmare or a night terror? Because these are two very different things.
What is a night terror?
A night terror is a type of parasomnia. What is a parasomnia, you ask? According to the Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary, a parasomnia is defined as “any of various disorders of sleep characterized by abnormal behavioral or physiological activity (such as sleepwalking or night terrors) during sleep or in the transitional stage between sleep and wakefulness.”1
In very simple terms, this means that, when your child is transitioning from a deep stage of sleep to a lighter stage of sleep, they can become stuck and appear to be having a terrible nightmare. Night terrors, however, are definitely not nightmares.
If you’ve asked yourself these questions and think your child is suffering from night terrors, there are two important things to think about next. The first is what you should do when your little one is suffering from a night terror. The second is how you can prevent them from occurring.
Remember that your child will have no recollection of the episode and may be embarrassed by their behaviour. We don’t want to create an anxiety around going to sleep due to their knowledge that they can’t control these “scary” outbursts. This is why we have to be careful when trying to talk to them about it after the fact.
Their lack of awareness is also why it’s best not to wake your child after their night terror has finished. Being woken in the middle of the night by a shaky parent may be upsetting for them.
As I said at the beginning of this post, night terrors are very hard to watch. Your child may be screaming for you to help them and your instincts will tell you to run to them and hold them. You will want to wake them up and stop the night terror. Again, this will only prolong the night terror. Keep in mind that your child has no awareness of what is happening and, despite their behaviour, they really are okay.
Even though your son or daughter is not actually hurt or scared during these episodes, we certainly want to do whatever we can to stop them from happening in the first place.
How can you prevent night terrors from occurring?
Some people are predisposed to suffering from parasomnias. They are hereditary, so if a parent or sibling has night terrors, sleepwalks, or talks in their sleep, that could be a clue that your little one has the potential to suffer from them as well.
They typically begin around three years of age but can sometimes happen in a baby as young as 15 months old. Interestingly, they are more common in boys than they are in girls.
Even if your child is predisposed to suffering from night terrors, they still have to be triggered by something in order for them to occur. If you can identify a trigger and eliminate it, then the night terrors should stop.
What triggers a night terror?
There are two conditions which can cause night terrors to appear:
- Sleep deprivation.
Overtired children are more likely to suffer from night terrors. If your little one has been suffering from these, a good first step is to put them to bed earlier and make sure they are getting enough daytime sleep (if they are still young enough that they need to be napping during the day).
- Positive or negative stress.
Positive stress could be excitement about moving to a new home or the arrival of a new sibling. When I was becoming certified as a Child Sleep Consultant, I learned about a case of a little boy who suffered from night terrors around the same time every year. His mum eventually realized that this was always happening around the holidays. His excitement about that time of year was enough positive stress to trigger his night terrors.
Negative stress could be something like an issue at school, tension in the home, or a loss of a loved one.
Even though, as parents, we wish we could eliminate all of the stress from our kid’s lives, we know we can’t. What you can do, however, is make sure that your little one’s pre-sleep routine is as stress-free as possible. If something exciting or stressful is happening, don’t discuss it during the hour before bedtime. Make sure that any books you read before bed are calming and don’t include conflict or scary characters like monsters or bad guys.
Despite your best efforts to get your little one as much sleep as possible and remove all stress from their bedtime routine, they may still have night terrors. If this is the case, don’t forget that they are not suffering during the episodes and that you are there to make sure they are safe.
If you want more information about night terrors, how to handle nightmares, or how to prevent your little one from suffering from parasomnias, book a free 15-minute consultation to talk it through with a sleep consultant!