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The Terrors of Night Terrors

The Terrors of Night Terrors

Night terrors might just sound as awful as they are. There’s nothing quite as scary as looking into your child’s eyes and seeing absolutely nothing there. No recognition of who you are, no sign of what’s scaring them, not even a clue that they’re screaming at all. You can see him and you can definitely hear him, but otherwise, it’s as if he isn’t even there. Why is this? And what do you do about it?

During sleep, we each transition in and out of various sleep cycles, including rapid eye movement (REM) cycles. REM sleep cycles are when dreams occur, and these cycles don’t usually come on until a few hours after being asleep. But before REM sleep occurs, there are still some sleep cycles coming and going. Night terrors occur during the transition from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep into a lighter stage of non-REM sleep. This deepest stage is one of the first, if not the very first stage of sleep at night, so it is common for children to experience a night terror not too long after falling asleep for the night. Anywhere between 45 minutes up to around 2-3 hours, depending on the kid.

Night terrors can happen to anybody, but are most common in children because of their immature nervous systems. As we grow up and our nervous system matures, we learn to cope with the many transitions of sleep throughout the night in a smooth, unnoticeable, and undisrupted way. But to a child who has not yet finished this development, various sleep stages are a little trickier. Eventually, a child who struggles with the transition from the deepest non-REM stage of sleep will, with practice, be able to sleep right through that change. But until then, they may become startled, upset, and deeply frightened during this transition. So much so that they may yell, scream, cry, and be inconsolable while still asleep and having no clue they are doing so.

They say the worst thing to do for your child when they are experiencing a night terror is to try and wake them up to snap them out of it. Apparently, since they are still asleep, it will just take them a few minutes to cry (scream) their way through the transition and then they typically lie back down and continue on sleeping as if nothing ever happened. Personally, I appreciate this advice and understand fully that trying to wake them up or console them in anyway only makes matters worse as it brings on a lot of agitation and even more confusion. However, for our family, we don’t have the luxury (horrible word here, but for a while there, this really sounded like a nice option) of giving our son the option to cry through it. Why? Because he vomits EVERY SINGLE time he experiences a night terror.

My little boy has had reoccurring night terrors for several months now. Some weeks it’s just about every night, some times it’s once a week, and every so often, they’ll disappear for a few weeks at a time. We’ve tried not going in there at all to see if his throwing up is due to us trying to help him and he gets agitated because of us, but it still happens. And you can bet that I’m not willing to try that a few more times to see if he’ll not throw up because what’s the point of him being able to fall back asleep on his own if we still have to go in there and clean up a big mess?

However, after a few months of helping him throw up in the toilet, which is nearly impossible to try and force his screaming, rigid, sleeping self to bend over and accurately aim, so no matter what there is a mess to clean up, we found a new solution. We wake him up. This isn’t even close to an easy task. Yelling isn’t an option because I’m already hoping he won’t wake up his little sister from his screams, and shaking him-–well, there’s an obvious reason we don’t do that. But after months and months of enduring these episodes, we figured it out.

Kindhood Hooded Towel - Sonora

Kindhood Hooded Towel - Sonora

Now, when my boy has a night terror, we strip him down and put him in the shower. (My husband usually gets in with him, we don’t just throw him in!) That way, if he throws up, it’s minimal clean up, but we’ve found the last two times (this is a very recent discovery on our part) that if we get him in the shower quick enough, he wakes up or snaps out of it before he throws up at all.

So while most parents have to endure (yes, I take back luxury now), 1-10 minutes of listening to their poor child go through one of these before falling back into uninterrupted sleep, we do the complete opposite. One of us sprints into his room while the other gets the water warmed up so we can wake him up as soon as possible to get him back to sleep as quickly as we can.

Because of the sleeping state, children don’t remember these episodes the next day. Our boy doesn’t either, even since we’ve started waking him up. Once he wakes up, he’s not calm and peaceful and he doesn't enjoy the shower. Ha! He’s still incredibly irritable and cries until we get him dried off, clothed, and lay him back down. I’m not convinced he ever fully wakes up enough to remember the next day. And that is definitely okay with me; I wouldn’t want him to remember such a situation.

There is no rhyme or reason to his episodes that we can tell, and we’ve gone as far as tracking every detail of each evening leading up to a night terror. Typical reasons why some children experience night terrors are medications, caffeine, over-tiredness, sickness, new environments, stress, and even overheating. Two of our strongest leads at this point are overheating and general stress/fear (like if he’s scared at night before falling asleep). And possibly something to do with acid reflux due to his vomiting. But these are all hunches, and we’ll likely just have to wait until he grows out of it. Sadly, it could go on until he’s 12 or older, and because the occurrence of night terrors tends to be genetic, there’s a good chance he’s not my only kid who will experience this!

Our saving grace here is that night terrors happen early enough in the night that my husband and I haven’t yet gone to bed, so we’re not groggy and incoherent from sleep, and we can handle the situation with clear minds. For any other parents who may be struggling with the reoccurrence of night terrors, I’m so sorry! Do what works best for you and your child and seek help if you need it! Good luck, you can do this, and hopefully you are well on your way to getting this figured out.

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