There are a lot of things that parents fear while raising kids. Whether or not we’re doing it right. Temper tantrums and being shamed for it. Kids saying cringe-worthy things in front of as many people as possible. But, imagine waking up to a screaming child wide-eyed with fear who is unable to tell you what’s wrong. In fact, they may not even be awake. This is not a nightmare. This is the strange and appropriately-named experience known as night terrors or sleep terrors.
The episodes occur approximately1-1.5 hours after falling asleep. This is generally when we transition from stage 3 to stage 4 of non-REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
Adults can experience them also but it’s less common. Most experts estimate that 1% – 6% of children are affected. Generally, kids experience them between ages 4 – 12. In addition to screaming and intense fear, kids may thrash around and be unconsolable. If that isn’t scary enough, some may also sleepwalk. I’m terrorized just describing this!
What causes night terrors?
It doesn’t appear that we really know why anyone experiences night terrors but there are some possible contributing causes.
- Lack of sleep
- Sleep apnea (interruption of breathing)
- Don’t know why!
I know that last one isn’t a good answer. But, if none of the others apply, what’s causing it? Interestingly, it runs in families and more boys experience them than girls. Doesn’t help much but it’s curious.
What to do? (and not do)
Our natural instinct is to try and wake or comfort a child experiencing night terrors. Unfortunately, that probably won’t help because the child isn’t aware of you or what’s happening. The most you can usually do is to remain calm. Make sure there’s nothing that will cause an injury. And, the hardest of all – wait it out. The episode should only last a few minutes but can last 45 minutes or more. NO!!!! Have some chocolate, ice cream or wine ready to calm you down when it’s over!
The good news about sleep terrors?
- Children typically grow out of them
- It may seem like they last the whole night but episodes typically only last for minutes
- They are generally not dangerous (no statistics available on the therapy that parents may need once it’s over!)
- There are ways to prevent them – “sleep awakening therapy” is showing a lot of promise
Basically, this therapy consists of waking the child 15 – 30 minutes before he typically experiences an episode (remember the whole REM thing?). That disrupts the sleep cycle and can prevent an episode.
Lully partnered with Stanford University’s night terrors clinic to develop a device that automatically vibrates to wake the child and prevent an episode. https://www.lullysleep.com/pages/how-it-works?utm_source=nightterrors.org&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=research_results_link (no more stepping on tiny princesses or race cars in the middle of the night!)
In any case, definitely let the pediatrician know what’s going on. But, rest assured – your child is probably experiencing something normal (even if it is completely unwanted). With a few relatively minor changes to the sleep routine, you can get control of this temporary situation. After all, you’ve survived a whole lot of other childhood peculiarities. You’ll conquer this too. You’re a superhero.
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