All kids will, at one time or another, experience some irrational fears.
But night terrors can be particularly distressing – for both your child – and you!
They generally only occur in a very small percentage of kids – usually between the ages of two and eight – but they can be very disconcerting.
The term ‘night terrors’ is generally applied to disconcerting screaming or crying that a child experiences at night during sleep. These terrors are different from nightmares in that they tend to involve kicking, sweating and – on occasion – sleepwalking. To many parents’ horror, they can also involve increased heart rate and increased breathing rate. Unlike nightmares, however, the child will have no recollection the next morning of anything untoward happening.
The terrors tend to happen when a child is moving between the light stage of sleep into the deeper stage. It’s at this time that large parts of his or her brain will to all intents and purposes be ‘asleep’, while a small part of their brain – the bit that effectively controls their voice and movements – is still alert.
Most episodes of night terrors will last about one or two minutes, but it may be half an hour before the child actually relaxes and goes back to sleep.
In terms of causes, it’s thought that night terrors are generally caused by issues such as sleep deprivation, stressful events or perhaps during a fever.
So, what can you do if your child is experiencing night terrors?
Well, the first thing you should do is to try to help your child get back to sleep. Gently soothing them and holding them close may be enough to reassure them. Don’t waken your child up or shout at them because this will simply create more fear and exacerbate the situation.
Remove anything in their immediate vicinity that could cause them any harm while they’re going through this terror. If they are sleepwalking, ensure that they don’t fall down the stairs or walk into furniture or walls.
If your child begins to experience night terrors, consider whether or not they’ve been experiencing any stressful life events recently and, if so, try to talk to them about these events to put their mind at rest. In terms of sleep deprivation, a regular bedtime schedule can help to improve the length and quality of their sleep and may therefore reduce the chances of night terrors occurring.
Encourage them to have a bedtime routine that will help them to be calm. Introduce bedtime stories, or a bath before bed – anything that creates a calm, peaceful atmosphere, as this will lessen the chances of such terrors occurring.
If your child has started to experience such terrors since taking a new medication, speak to your GP about what is happening to see if an alternative medicine can be prescribed.
Most children will eventually stop experiencing night terrors. If you feel that the situation is becoming worse, then speak to your GP as medication may be one temporary solution. In the meantime, management of the situation is of primary importance. Distressing as they may be for all involved, remember that these episodes are not harmful.