My six year old daughter has always been a great sleeper. (My son was the horrible sleeper that got me into this business!). So, several years ago I was surprised when she started crying and screaming in the night. It was a couple of hours after she went to bed and she started yelling my name. I went to her and tried to comfort her, but all she would do is yell my name and hit and kick me away. I alternated between thinking she was possessed and she was just being a pain! She finally fell asleep and I was relieved. This happened occasionally for a few weeks before I found the answer to what was going on. She was having night terrors.
A night terror is a parasomnia disorder, like sleepwalking. Night terrors occur when a child is in Non-REM sleep (nightmares happen in REM sleep) and is transitioning from one sleep stage to another. Although night terrors can be upsetting for the adults in the child’s life, the child has no memory of it and they do not cause any harm.
Other parasomnia disorders include sleep talking, sleepwalking, and narcolepsy. If you or your spouse had any of these, your child is more likely to have one as well. Boys are slightly more likely to have them than girls (although my daughter has them and my son never has). Night Terrors normally occur within 2-3 hours of the child going to sleep.
What do you do if your child has a night terror?
Unfortunately there is not much you can do. Go to your child and tell them you are there and they are ok. You can stay with them to be sure they do not fall out of bed, since they do a bit of thrashing around while having a night terror. Do not touch them because this can actually lengthen the episode. Do not talk about the night terror the next day, because the child will not remember it, and it can cause them anxiety about what is happening to them in the middle of the night. If your child regularly experiences night terrors and you can figure out how long after falling asleep they have them, you could wake them 10 – 15 minutes before the episode normally occurs a couple of times a week. This will change their sleep cycles and they may stop having the night terrors.
The most common cause of night terrors is sleep deprivation so make sure your child is getting enough sleep. Make bedtime a little earlier and see if that helps.
Michelle Winters graduated from the College of William and Mary with a Bachelor’s of Science in Psychology and is a Certified Gentle Sleep Coach. Working with infants, toddlers, and preschool aged children at a Montessori school has made her aware of how prevalent sleep difficulties are. She decided she wanted to do something to help all the tired parents out there, especially since she had been one of those tired parents until very recently when her 3 year old son finally started sleeping through the night. She can help you create a plan that will have your child sleeping better at night and at naptime. Her website is www.sleepwellsleepsolutions.com.
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