For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a sleep talker and sleep walker. There was that time when I sleep-walked my way into my brother’s room during the night, switched the light on and proceeded to throw all of his hard He-Man figurines at him while he slept. There was that other time when my husband heard the front door unlock during the night and found me trying to make my way out onto the street. In my undies.
There have been countless times I’ve screamed so loud during the night that I’ve woken my kids up. I’ve woken my husband up, convinced there are ants/mice/rats/spiders crawling up our bedroom walls, or that someone has broken into the house and is trying to abduct the kids. My eyes are open, I’m sitting up and I’m absolutely convinced what I’m saying is true – but I’m asleep and nine times out of ten, I have no recollection of what I’ve said or done in the morning.
The most frightening of my night time adventures so far was when I had a night terror so bad that I physically attacked my husband. In his attempt to calm me while I was screaming and crying and trying to escape the bed, he tried to stop me from getting up. In the morning, my shins were bruised and swollen from kicking the bed frame so hard in an attempt to get away and his chest was full of bloodied scratch marks from my own hands. It was intense and terrible and actually really pretty distressing because it was the first time my (semi) harmless sleep issues had become violent.
My daughter has won the sleep jackpot and she suffers from them too. It’s difficult to know what to do in these situations, when your child is obviously distressed, often screaming and terrified, and there’s nothing you can do to help them. Their eyes are wide open, but there’s something vacant about them, so you know that they’re in that twilight zone between being asleep and awake.
What are night terrors?
It’s estimated that night terrors affect around 6% of young children. While there’s no definitive reason as to why they occur, researchers believe it is an unexplained glitch in the transition between sleep stages that happen during a sleep cycle.
According to sleep expert Jodi A. Mindell, author of the book Sleeping Through The Night, a good way to gauge the difference between a night terror and a nightmare is to see who is more upset about the event the morning after. “If you’re child is more agitated, she had a nightmare. If you’re the one who’s disturbed, she probably had a night terror.”
Tips for helping prevent and deal with night terrors
- Try not to let your child become over-tired. This can be tricky when your kid is a sleep-fighter, but clinical psychologist Dr Laura Markham, suggests moving your child’s bedtime back little by little every night so ideally, they are in bed by 7pm. An earlier bedtime can make it easier to get your little one to sleep and minimise the chance of over-arousal prior to bed.
- Keep the bedtime ritual CALM. This includes no loud music, TV or stimuli that might rev your child up. Keep the bedtime ritual as calm and relaxing as you can, with a warm bath, massage, reading and comfy pjs.
- Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital recommends keeping your child’s room safe, ensuring windows are locked, the floor is clear of objects they could trip over and if you have stairs, try to install a gate to avoid falls.
- If your child experiences night terrors at the same time, try and gently wake your child 15 minutes before the time they’d usually hit to pull them out of that deep sleep. A week of these night terror ‘interventions’ could help with re-setting your child’s sleeping pattern according to Baby Centre.
- Baby Centre also recommends staying close-by to your child during an episode. As much as it goes against everything our parental instincts tell us, try not to touch, wake, or try to hug your child. They’re asleep during this time, so the physical contact could make the situation worse. Ensure your child is safe and once the night terror has subsided, you can then offer them some comfort.
The Royal Children’s Hospital reports that while disturbing for parents in particular, “Night terrors are a part of normal development and happen in healthy children” and most children will outgrow them.
Of course, if you are concerned about the frequency of your child’s night terrors, or if their episodes are particularly violent, seek professional advice.
Does your child suffer from night terrors? Do you have any tips for dealing with them?