Ah, the famous night terrors! Where toddlers wake up in complete panic, unaware of their surroundings, and fall back asleep almost instantly after a few seconds (you have to admit that we envy them on this last point!). But what exactly are these night terrors? What causes them? What can be done about it? Here's some practical information to help you better understand why your little one suddenly starts crying or screaming, and what you can do to help him or her sleep better.
What are night terrors?
In technical terms—and ones that pay well at Scrabble—night terrors are a paroxysmal sleep disorder, part of parasomnia (such as sleepwalking, for example). These terrors occur in children, usually between 18 months and 4 years of age; they are rarer after 5 years and are harmless.
In other words, a night terror is a nightmare…
Not at all! While after a nightmare, children will wake up and be able to express what the dream was about, they aren’t aware of what is going on when a night terror occurs. Besides, they won't have the slightest recollection of it, but you will!
What are night terrors like?
The symptoms of night terrors are varied, but basically it can be something like this:
Your little one has been asleep for an hour or two when suddenly, they scream out. You don't even hesitate and rush into the room thinking your child has fallen out of bed, hit the wall or just stepped on a damn LEGO block. And yet you find him sitting in bed, in crisis. As a good parent, you try to comfort your baby with a hug, but he rejects you by kicking you and screaming louder and louder, staring at you with eyes open and empty (yes, that can be a little scary!). He’s terrified (by who? by what? we don't know), and doesn't answer you when you ask questions. Your child is sweaty, his heartbeat is racing, and if he speaks it will be incoherent. Some children can even wet their beds in this situation (a foam mattress with a water-repellent layer will come in handy in this case!).
Pretty daunting, right? But while your first reflex as a parent will be to hug your baby to reason with him, you should resist this urge, since your little one isn’t aware of any of this, he’s sleeping! While you might sometimes wake up your toddler by dropping a needle on a carpet, his own screams won't even get him out of Morpheus' arms in case of night terrors! And if you do wake him up, he'll wonder why Mom and Dad are standing next to him in the middle of the night, half panicked. And THERE you might scare him, and he might take a while to get back to sleep; that's what we want to avoid, isn't it?
Okay, but what do we do in the meantime?
The best thing to do is to stay by your kid's side and make sure he doesn't hurt himself by falling out of bed or throwing himself backwards or against the wall, and wait for the fit to pass. It usually lasts between 1 and 5 minutes, and once it's over, your child will lie back down quietly without asking for anything else (while you're just getting over your emotions!). And the next morning, if you bring up the subject with him, he will look at you strangely because he will have no memory of what happened, unlike you!
Why do kids have night terrors?
About 1 in 10 children will have regular episodes of night terrors, but a large proportion of children will experience at least 1 episode between 1 and 5 years of age. And you could be the cause! Well, not quite: there is a genetic predisposition to night terrors, so if your child is prone to them, chances are high that you also traumatised your parents experienced night terror episodes during your childhood!
Other causes may include too much tiredness or a disruption in the sleep cycle (for example, when the child stops napping), when your child is sick, or when your child is under a lot of stress such as a change of daycare, a separation, the arrival of a baby, etc.
Keep in mind that these night terrors:
- Are harmless,
- Are different from a nightmare,
- Can be quite dramatic,
- Occur before the age of 5,
- May be hereditary.
So the next time your toddlers wake up screaming, you don't have to rush into their room with all speed; you know that there's no danger for them. Go to them, stay calmly with them until they go back to sleep... and try to do the same, even if for us it might be a bit more complicated!
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