One of the scariest things to wake up to as a parent is your child in distress. Night terrors tend to be more common in children between the ages of 3-7 and affect about 30% of children in their sleep.
If your child has a case of night terrors, it might feel overwhelming to try and troubleshoot the problem. Thankfully, night terrors are far from permanent, and understanding the causes and systems that control them can make it a lot easier to handle, and a lot less scary.
From the unconventional reasons children find themselves struggling with these scary dreams, to the various ways you can help minimize their symptoms, here's a comprehensive guide to handling night terrors in your children.
Alternatively known as 'sleep terrors', night terrors are a type of parasomnia that occurs during non-REM sleep, which means it occurs somewhere between the first three to four hours of the night. Night terrors can last anywhere between 10 to 40 minutes.
Children who experience night terrors experience vivid dreams that are panic-inducing, resulting in physical symptoms like screaming, kicking, and flailing. In extreme cases, this can also be accompanied by other symptoms such as a rapid heart rate, flushed skin, dilated pupils, and tense muscles.
There are a couple of key differences between nightmares and night terrors that make them distinct experiences. While nightmares or bad dreams are common amongst children, with about 10 - 50% of children aged 3 - 6 experiencing them, kids' night terrors are far more rare, affecting about 3% of them.
The most important difference between nightmares and night terrors is that while usually, children are consolable through nightmares, they’re unable to snap out of a night terror until it is done. A young child who’s in the middle of a nightmare night seems a little restless in their sleep but can be comforted quickly. With night terrors, panic overrides the system while your child is sleeping, leaving them to be inconsolable until it’s over.
Other notable differences between nightmares and night terrors are the stage of sleep they occur in. Whereas nightmares and bad dreams occur when all other dreaming happens, which is during REM sleep, nightmares take place more frequently during NREM sleep. Learning to differentiate between these two can help you figure out how to help your child a lot quicker.
Though the cause of kids’ night terrors is not fully known, your child is more likely to experience them if you have a history of parasomnia in your family. Night terrors can be a normal part of child development and aren’t really indicative of deeper issues. Physician intervention is only really necessary in chronic cases, or in instances when a child’s terrors are disrupting their sleep in a more serious way.
Though in most cases, night terrors are completely normal, children can sometimes experience them if they’re feeling a heightened sense of anxiety or stress about something in particular. They’re also more likely to occur if your child is sick or has a high fever, and is on certain types of strong medication. Teaching your child how to practice calming techniques and encouraging them to self-soothe helps with minimizing the impact of their terrors, as well as when they struggle with bad dreams.
While you might not be able to help your child when they’re in the middle of experiencing a night terror, there are a few tried and tested ways you can minimize its negative impact on both you and your child.
If your child is in the middle of experiencing an episode, try not to intervene, as attempts to do so usually just exacerbate their symptoms. You’ll also want to keep the room as safe as possible, locking any extra windows, and clearing the floor so they don’t accidentally hurt themselves.
Siblings who share beds are likely going to be a lot more affected by a case of night terrors. Finding the best kid’s mattresses to ensure there’s minimal disturbance during children’s sleep is therefore important - opting for a memory foam mattress is going to improve motion isolation and will ensure more comfort and fewer interruptions through the night.
Making sure to practice healthy sleep hygiene habits can also make a world of difference when you’re trying to work through your child’s night terrors. If you notice them getting up or having episodes at a certain time in the day, then try waking them up fifteen minutes before to see if that makes a difference to their sleep cycle.
Your child is unlikely to have any memory of their night terror the next morning, but if they share a room with siblings, be sure to remain calm in your approach when helping them. Your children mirror your emotional responses, so as long as you remain calm and organized in your own approach, they’ll remain calm too.
Your children learn how to value the importance of a good night’s sleep very early in their lives, and it’s up to you to ensure they understand how vital it can be to their wellbeing. One way to do this is by making naptime and bedtime something your children can genuinely look forward to.
Set up nighttime rituals that your child enjoys practicing, such as reading a bedtime story, having a gratitude hour, or enjoying a warm cup of milk or cocoa right before bedtime. While night terrors might temporarily create fear in children when it comes to getting sleep, trying to ease the process by creating a comfortable environment is going to do wonders to how secure they feel.
While night terrors and even bad dreams might seem frightening, having a better understanding of how you can approach them allows you to have a plan the next time they strike. It’s always worth remembering that your children won’t have any long-term effects from their night terrors, and most eventually outgrow them.