Some children are prone to night terrors, whereas other children wake up in the night crying for other reasons entirely. Night terrors in children can be scary, but they don’t tend to adversely affect them and there are definitely things you can do to help your child sleep through the night uninterrupted again.
Recently we’ve determined that my youngest suffers from night terrors. Picture this: my husband and I are relaxing in the living room when we here screaming. I go running into the bedroom and find my youngest screaming into his pillow. When we try to interact with him he screams harder, telling us we are scaring him and everything is moving to fast. I could hold him, he let me do that, but the moment my husband tried to grab him and talk to him he got even more distressed. Luckily my sleep knowledge kicked in and I knew exactly what was happening and was able to take action so that they resolved after a few nights. But they do come back, like if he gets sick.
What are night terrors?
Night terrors most commonly occur in kids from 3 – 10 years of age (my youngest is 6). They tend to occur during REM sleep which means that they happen within the first few hours of a child going to sleep.
When a child is having a night terror they will scream and when you go to them look wild-eyed, anxious or fearful. You may notice their little heart pounding and they are inconsolable. Any attempt to interact with them can also make things worse, prolong the night terror (like when my son was saying my husband was scaring him and making things go fast). After 5 to 10 minutes the night terror will subside and they will be able to go back to sleep. They don’t remember their night terror the next day.
What triggers them?
The first time my youngest had his night terror the trigger was overtiredness. He is an incredibly sensitive sleeper and with starting Kindergarten and long days he was getting more tired than normal. This is a well-known trigger for night terrors but others are fever, sleep patterns being disrupted and events that cause high emotions – both positive or negative (like Christmas, moving house or a big transition). It is important to know that when your child is having chronic nightmares that this is generally due to chronically abnormal sleep schedules.
What action can you take?
The biggest thing you can do when your child starts to have night terrors is to move bedtime earlier. Around 30 minutes earlier tends to work well. This allows your child to get more sleep. We did this with my youngest and after two days he stopped having his night terrors. Since then he has only done it when he is sick and has a fever.
I hope this information helps you determine whether your child waking up overnight is a night terror and what you can do about it. If you are still unsure, please don’t hesitate to schedule a sleep strategy session so that we can puzzle it out together.