We Get It: Night Terrors

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Night Terrors.

Phew. Just saying it exhausts me.

Seriously. I cannot explain what a night terror is. And I’m [this] close to videoing George when he has one. But can’t bring myself to publish that for the whole world to see.

A night terror is not a nightmare. I can only explain it as something that is so uncontrolled by the child. And there’s nothing a parent can do to control it either.

A nightmare is simply a scare that the child has and is comforted by seeing and being held by their parent.

I looked up the definition of a Night Terror and found that WebMD has a pretty good explanation of it:

A typical night terror episode usually begins approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep. The child sits up in bed and screams, appearing awake but is confused, disoriented, and unresponsive to stimuli. Although the child seems to be awake, the child does not seem to be aware of the parents’ presence and usually does not talk. The child may thrash around in bed and does not respond to comforting by the parents.

Knowing this and also that a night terror is a sleep disorder has helped me tremendously. Just knowing what George was doing was called a Night Terror helped me. It helped me realize its not me. That I’m not exaggerating these episodes.

I had asked about night terrors on Facebook and got an overwhelming response of others that are going through [or have gone through] the same episodes with a child, and got lots of tips on how they’ve dealt with the behavior, too. I’ve tried some of these and will pass along how I’ve learned to cope.

I hope this will help someone else that is going through these same episodes.

So, here I am. Going to pass on advice, that’s not really advice, but only the knowledge of what a Night Terror is and how we are learning to cope with it.

Here’s our story of night terrors, before I knew they were night terrors:

George wakes up in the middle of the night. Okay, not the middle of the night. Roughly 2 or 3 hours into his sleep. Which is also roughly when I go to bed, or about an hour into my sleep.

He screams immediately. Thrashing immediately.

If I touch him, worse.

If I pick him up, he arches his back and throws himself around. I feel like I’ll break him if I continue to hold him.

I lay him down on the floor, he trashes out of control.

He runs into the wall, or the radiator, or whatever is ‘behind’ him, because as he thrashes himself, he pushes himself backwards.

I pick him up again, this time holding him super tight and trying to sing to him, hoping to calm him down.

More screams. And my arms are extremely sore from holding on so tight.

I needed a rest. But my child is screaming.

This usually went on for at least 45 minutes if not an hour or an hour and a half. With my attempts of trying to calm him down with absolutely no luck at all. Until I finally give in and just let him lay on the floor by himself, thrashing wildly until he’s finally given in to his own tiredness and falls back asleep.

Fast forward to now.

The turning point? George’s 18 month checkup where I asked the doctor about these episodes. I felt like I was complaining about a child that just won’t sleep at night. But it was fresh in my mind at this appointment because it had just happened two nights before. So I went ahead and told her what was going on.

Turns out, its a night terror. She handed me some information sheets on both night terrors and nightmares. Definitely a night terror.

Our new approach, after knowing what a night terror is, and knowing that there is absolutely nothing you can do to stop a night terror. You just need to let it run its course.

When George first wakes screaming, I go to his room and I do attempt to hold him still, in case its not one of those episodes. When I find that he resists me holding him, I lay him down on the floor. Let him do his thing.

I lay next to him, but careful not to touch him.

If I talk, I talk very calmly and quietly.

I also turn on his lamp, to allow some light, to hopefully arouse him out of his sleep.

If my husband’s around during an episode [he works nights], he’ll lay next to him as well, and sing quietly, the sound of a man’s voice singing is very soothing.

It has to be one of the hardest things to do as a parent. Watching quietly as your child is screaming to their wit’s end. Nothing you can do.

But, this new, calmer approach, has shortened the length of time that George’s night terrors have been lasting drastically. Now they’re roughly 10-15 minutes. A much more doable amount of time, and the approach is much less exhausting on everyone.

So, what we’ve done to cope with night terrors in our house:

  • Don’t touch the child after you’ve recognized it to be a night terror.
  • Talk calm and quietly, or sing softly.
  • Keep him safe, remove any objects in the area that may be of harm.
  • Turn on a dim light.
  • Be patient.

I have heard of others awakening the child right before the time they would have a night terror, to waken them on your own [and their own]terms and put them back to sleep. This hasn’t been necessary for us yet. George’s night terrors are quite irregular, happening about every other week now. I am very thankful for this because I’ve heard of others occuring several times per week.

While we have managed to cope with the night terrors much better, it would be nice to eliminate them altogether. I haven’t figured this one out yet. WebMD has a few suggestions as to what could trigger night terrors:

Night terrors may be caused by:

  • Stressful life events
  • Fever
  • Sleep deprivation
  • Medications that affect the brain

I thought George’s seemed to be caused by sleep deprivation, but its been happening lately on days that he even gets a good two-hour nap. And we go to bed at the same time consistently.

The only thing I’ve found for us is that it happens to be on days that I’m not around to put him down for nap. It may be my husband, or my sister-in-law, or my mom that puts him down for a nap. Like I said, the nap still seems to be a good nap most of the time, and even sometimes still in his own bed. I don’t know if this little bit of straying from his normal ‘routine’ that day is the cause of it or not, but its just my latest observation.

Whatever the reason for it happening, my end goal is always a sleeping child. Whatever it takes to get there. And it sure would be nice to not have to deal with it at all, but learning to cope with it makes it much more manageable.


 

We get it. As parents, we all end up dealing with some sort of difficult behavior that our child brings to the table. Its tough to deal sometimes. And sometimes, its just nice to know that others are dealing with the same behaviors.

This Night Terrors post is written as part of The Golden Gleam’s weekly series [every Tuesday]: We Get It.

Check out The Golden Gleam for a list of all upcoming [and past] We Get It posts on difficult behaviors. Next week is about self centered children and how to deal.

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Comments

  1. says

    We dealt with these two, and it finally got better when we realized that we had to just let them run their course and not try to interfere (but make sure he was safe). We couldn’t figure out any reason for these either, but I definitely agree that the biggest help was knowing and understanding what they were b/c they are quite terrifying and not knowing makes it worse. A big thing, too, that differentiates them from nightmares is that the child (thankfully) has no recollection of the night terror episode the next day. Good luck! (Ours happened with a boy at about the same age – FYI).

    • says

      Why knowing and understanding what something is makes it better, I don’t know… but it really really does. It helps so much to hear that others have experienced it too, so I greatly appreciate you taking the time to tell me your story.

      Yes, and thankfully, they don’t remember!

      • Kelly says

        I think knowing helps because before I knew, I’d try to step in and help and would take it very personally when my child would not accept my efforts to console him or hug him. Now I just sit there quietly, hold his hand (which he lets me do) and whisper that he’s safe and with mommy.

  2. says

    That’s what I thought Nico had too for a while but the a few things differs: he will let me touch him and hold him then pushes away, he wants down to stand and walk around crying for a bit then comes back to me. He doesn’t thrash around. He does that a few times. So I’m not sure if it’s those anymore… The rest of the “symptoms” are the same as yours.

      • says

        I thought so Rebekah, I normally just go with the flow and it lasts about 10-15 min. I hate when it happens though he looks so lost. As I was typing this answer he had one. This time he hugged me back when I got there, then he just sat there screaming, crying and kicking in his bed, at one point he started to kick me and Alex even though we just sat there. I asked him something and he answered, so I knew he was snapping out of it. The more it went one the more violent he became. I asked him several things and he answered. Then he came back to me and hugged for a while. I had to get him snapping out of it quickly so we had the big light on. He was chocking and coughing like crazy since he’s just finishing a cold. So it’s night terrors I guess :-/

        • says

            oh ick Valerie. With a cold too would be so terrible. Just remind yourself that you’re doing everything you possibly can. And it’ll be okay.
  3. says

    Hi there,

    My boys have a problem with night terror too. Just to extend some support to you that I can understand how hard it can be. It seems to be getting slightly better for me as they get older but not eliminated totally. Hope your boy will grow out of it. Understanding how it all work out really makes it more manageable but every episode of it is so draining and painful.

      • says

        My boys are 3 years old twins. Night terrors still “visit” every now and then. On days when they skip nap, the visit is almost a sure thing. Hang in there!

          • Darcy says

            I have 4 troll twins. My son had them at a few weeks old and continued until 3ish. Same symptoms….what helped us thru them was turning the tv on low without lights on and sit next to him. He hasn’t had one in a very long time, maybe a year. The triggers we noticed…..he has sensory processing disorder and if he got over stimulated during the daywe could bank on a night terror. On bad days we would have multiple terrors. The good news for us and hopefully you is he has grown out of them! Thinking of you as I would cry right along side of him.

  4. says

    I have 35 month old twins. My daughter has had night terrors sporadically for about a year. The worst was the week I volunteered for VBS at our church and they spent those days in the nursery. They were exhausted and I’m pretty sure that was what triggered them. She’s just had another tonight, after having spent the weekend with her grandfather (who decided they didn’t need naps while they were there). Touching her only makes things worse. Tonight she was hitting me and thrashing about. It’s SO hard not to touch her when all I want to do is comfort her. Especially when her brother is only a few feet away in his bed and almost always ends up being awakened by her screams. It is comforting to read that doing nothing is what we should be doing. It feels so helpless, but anything we try only makes things worse.

    • says

      I do think being overtired is the most common trigger for us — but not always either, that’s what makes it frustrating, trying to figure that out!

      We’ve thought about moving our boys together in the same room, but I’m hesitant to mainly because of these episodes. How does your son manage?

      • says

        My son sleeps through most of them. The ones that last longer will wake him up, but we can usually settle him back down. Every now and then we end up with two screaming toddlers on our hands. Of course, they’ve been sharing a room since before they were born, so they really tune out each others’ noises. There are times when my son has nightmares (not terrors, thank goodness) and my daughter sleeps right through those.

        • says

          That’s ‘lucky’. As lucky as you can get in that situation at least. The two screaming toddlers at once, I don’t think I could handle. Especially in the middle of the night during a night terror.

  5. Nichole Kriewall says

    My son had these too. Sometimes they would last up to an hour and a half because we didn’t know to leave him alone! Once we found out to leave him alone they wouldn’t last more than 10-15 minutes. Luckily, most kids DO outgrow them. He seemed to once he hit 3 years old. Of course, he has had a couple of them this year (he is 4) but an occasional one is better than nightly!

    • says

      That sounds exactly like this house! We had no idea to just let him be! 3 years old seems like a long ways away for us… hopefully it’ll end before then ;) Occasional, I can handle though.

  6. says

    Thank you so much for writing about this! I’m not the only one! We think (knock on wood) that my son is FINALLY finished with his night terrors. He had them when he was older than most children, I think – he’s 7 now and had them, give or take, 3-4 nights a week for over a year and a half. It’s been over 2 months since the last one, whew! I was lucky (ha!) in that while my older son didn’t have them, I’ve been in the childcare profession for over 15 years now so I’ve dealt with night terrors before so I didn’t panic (once I realized what they were, I didn’t panic, I should say!) about them. The worst time? The worst was my husband being away, and me sitting in my bath water, turning off the running water to hear blood curtleling (how do you spell that anyways?) screams coming from my kid’s room. Looking back on that, I’m glad the kid was totally asleep cause the sight of his butt naked Mommie rushing out of the bathroom to save him might possibly have traumatized him more than the terror……

    • says

      Oh no! I can only imagine hearing those screams while relaxing so nicely in the bath! That would end that in a hurry – and thankfully, they don’t remember! I’ve heard they often occur in children up to 12 years of age – but I don’t know how common that is either. I’m glad ours only happen about twice a month – so I can’t complain – it has been getting more frequent lately though, so I hope we don’t get them more regularly. Just a couple times a month takes it out of me. I feel for you dealing with it many times a week!

  7. MHarris says

    Our fabulous pediatrician recommended that for two straight weeks, we wake up our son (who had been having night terrors on and off for over a year) a couple hours after he fell asleep. Around 9 or 10 pm. We made sure he was fully awake by turning on the light and made him eat something small or drink water. It disrupts their sleep pattern and they are able to start a new pattern. After doing this for two weeks, he has not had a night terror in over a year! Dealing with them was such a challenge, maybe this will work for someone else, too.

    • says

      I’ve heard of waking them up, but wasn’t ready to do that since we’re pretty sporadic with having them. How often did you son have them?

      I hope that’s the solution that many can use!

      • heather says

        EVERYONE:::::

        READ THE ABOVE COMMENT!!!!

        It can work!!! After about a year of this, sometimes 3-4 times a week I was at the end of my rope. Finally my ped gave me the number to a pediatric sleep specialist. I called to make an appt. On the phone this is what he said I should try first and if that didn’t work, then to come in. This restarts their sleep cycle, allowing them to be more fully rested when they get to stage 3 of sleep. Often their brains have not fully calmed down when they get to this stage, causing terrors, or more commonly sleep walking/eating. OMG, it really worked for us.. within a few days!! Try it!!! Really, what could waking your child up for a few minutes hurt?? Especially in comparison to what’s going on? I wouldn’t wake her for long…just to say good night (hehe), take her potty, sometimes I would turn on her lamp rouse her with a short story…it was calm and peaceful. She even got kinda used to it. I was afraid to stop!! I think I did it for about a month or two….completely gone!!

  8. tanya says

    I don’t know how religious people are but my cousin was having night terrors and his mom would sprinkle holy water on their child before bed and the night terrors stopped.

  9. CASSIE says

    My son Kendall now almost 5 started having night terrors when he was 2. I felt horrible when they started. He’d cry and call for me, but would never recognize me. Always looked past me and my husband as if we were not there. On a few occasions he would look past me and say “I hate you.” I know he didn’t mean it but it was still hard to deal with. After a year and a half of having them every night they slowed down to a couple times a week. Now they happen maybe once or twice a month. Hang in there this to shall pass.

  10. says

    My son is 8 and occasionally has a night terror. This has toned WAY down from when he was younger. Thank goodness!! I can understand your pain and frustration. There is literally nothing we can do except what you mentioned already.

    We did notice that he cannot have anything unnaturally sweet at least 2 hours prior to sleeping. So no dessert unless we eat it early. :) Fruits seem to be okay and that’s what we try to offer him if he has a hankering for something sweet an hour before bedtime. Also, he only wears a t-shirt and underwear to bed. If he wears anything more, he gets too hot and ends up having a night terror.

    I read an article years ago (can’t remember where) that people who have night terrors have them because something wakes them up but they never fully wake up so they get caught between an awake and sleep state. When my son was 3 he had night terrors every night and it ended up being because he had to use the potty at night, but never fully awoke. At that time, we didn’t give him water before bedtime and it drastically reduced his episodes.

    It sounds like you are aware of possible solutions and that’s awesome!! Just keep trying different things because something may be triggering his brain to stay too active at night possibly causing the night terrors. :)

  11. Jesseka says

    My son’s night terrors sound like Cassie’s sons’. He would scream and call out for me but would look right past me like I wasn’t there. I could hold him and try to comfort him but it was like he was in a different world. It’s heartbreaking (and stressful) knowing he’s calling out for me but I can’t comfort him. Then after all that, in the morning he doesn’t remember it at all when I’m all exhausted and stressed. what?! He’s had them for a few years now so it’s a [little] easier to deal with but he doesn’t have them that often. My heart definitely goes out to the parents that deal with it often.

  12. says

    My daughter had night terrors from the time she was a few months old until she was about 4 or 5 and as she got older they became fewer and further between. It was terrifying for me when she was an infant because she would be completely limp when I picked her up. I found that as she got older, the best thing to do was to just stay calm and comfort her the best I could and wait for it to end. She is now 13 and she hasn’t had one in many years but she often does talk in her sleep and she is definitely
    someone who is unpleasant if she doesn’t get enough sleep. They do grow out of it and it does get better.

  13. says

    Something that worked wonders with my son’s night terrors: saying, very calmly, “You had a scary dream.” instead of “Shh, it’s okay,” or something along those lines. HUGE difference.

    Night terrors are always difficult, I’m grateful that they have never lasted for more than a few weeks at a time with my kids.

    • Sharon Riebel says

      You are very fortunate they only lasted a few weeks with your kids. It’s incredibly draining and my youngest son had them three or four times a week for almost two years. We could never do anything but sit with him while he went through it. I wish I had known this kind of support when we were going through it, I had no idea how common it was.

    • Amy says

      That doesn’t sound like night terrors, then. As someone who has dealt with it for YEARS, it is a sleep disorder. And it’s not a scary dream. As I’ve described it to others, “It’s more of a ‘terror’ for the parents than the kids.” They don’t remember anything in the morning.

  14. Megan says

    My now 4 yr old had night terrors since she was not quite 2 years old. We discussed it with her DR after she had 3 in a week. The first thing we noticed was she usually needed to pee. She was potty trained and would pee on us as soon as we picked her up. After she turned 3 night terrors left, but they turned into sleep walking – so that is something you might want to watch for. My kids go to bed a few hours before we do, so we were always awake during her episodes. We watched her one night as she attempted to walk right out the back door – we installed top locks ASAP. She is 4.5 and still sleep walks.

  15. says

    Our spirited son is prone to night terrors if he is overtired or overstimulated. So we’re careful with his naps and makes sure that he has lots of opportunity to run off the “manics” outside if he gets overstimulated (such as after a birthday party). If in doubt we take him for a walk outside before bed. So far, so good. :D

  16. says

    My daughter has had this (night terror) for 2-3 times at 5 years and then at 6. The first time, it went on for hours – till wee hours in the morning! I didn’t know then that it was night terror. But when it happened again a few months later, I figured a way out of it.
    What I would do was – I would bring up a topic from that very day – about something that we did together – activity, play, joke. I would start talking in a very casual matter of fact manner as if I’m having a chat with her. I’d continue talking bits and pieces about our day and then I’d ask her a question related to it – like – do you want to do this tomorrow, too? What shall we do with that pink paper? and some more. I’d continue till she would come back to normalcy and respond!
    This has worked the couple of times that it happened since then…

    • Angie says

      We found that helps bring him out of it a bit faster, too. We usually end up talking about spaceships, and our neighbor alien, “Andy.” :)

  17. Angie says

    I have three year old B/G twins. Our son was the perfect sleeper until he hit the age of about 14 months, then started with the occasional night terror–we read up on it, did everything we were supposed to, to a tee. When it started happening nightly, sometimes several times a night, well–it was terrible. I kept trying to ask our doctor for ideas, for help–but they kept telling us we were doing everything right, that he would just have to outgrow it. After over a YEAR of little sleep, for everyone in our family, and our marriage being on the brink of disaster b/c of it–I had an epiphany. He had terrible reflux as a baby (outgrew it at about six months), and I noticed he still occasionally spat up–kind of weird for a two year old. I asked the DR to prescribe his reflux meds again, and within three days’ dose, he was back to sleeping through the night again. I feel terrible now, knowing he was in pain for so long, but am so glad we found a solution. Even now, when he has something too acidic before bedtime, he will still go into his “terrors,” but I know it’s diet related when he’s coughing and choking. Something everyone should pay attention to, especially if there’s been a history of acid reflux. Apparently, the body produces the MOST acid around 10pm (I have no idea why), usually the same time night terrors also tend to kick in. I am confident he was having/has night terrors, but they were/are induced by the acid indegestion. Our lives have improved 110% since making that discovery. Bottom line for us was: follow your gut; doctors don’t know your kids as well as you do.

  18. Jackie Belich says

    Wow! I wish I would have had this information 2 years ago. My soon to be 3 y.o experienced these and I had no idea what they were. I told my doctor who just brushed these to the side and never had an answer for me. I’ve never felt so helpless (besides when my son had a surgery at 4months) it really wasn’t until about 6 months ago, he had one of these and i was talking to another mom who suggested night terrors, sure enough I looked it up and he met all the criteria. Thanks for being an outreach/support to other parents going through this:)

    • says

      Jackie — I know how not only helpless you can feel, but just like a bad mom. I felt so bad, I was complaining about it all the time, but no one understood, everyone compared it to nightmares and shrugged it off like its happens, yeah, deal with it lady. Once I figured it out, it was SUCH a relief.

      Off topic, but what did your son have surgery for? My oldest had surgery when he was 5 months old and yes, that’s probably THE MOST helpless a mom can feel.

  19. Brenda says

    Trinity is going to be 9 yrs old in July. I have raised her for 8 years, she is my granddaughter. Mom had her for a year when she was 4 then she came back to me.
    We had another episode last night. She fell out of bed, and was screaming and complaining about her clothes, tried to take them all off. Then it was the blankets, then it was the sheets. We have a cocker spaniel almost 2 yrs old, she wanted him, he laid on her pillow, she yelled, get him off, she put him next to her, she didnt want him there cuz he was pushing her off the bed, so she pushed him, then screamed because his nail scratched her. Yelled at me that I hate her, said she hates her life. I tried to comfort her… no way, that wasnt happening. This went on for 2 hrs, I was so frustrated. She finally was so exhausted, she fell asleep.

    She was diagnosed with Night Terrors when she was about a year old. Now that she is older they are different. She wakes up crying and complaining about whatever is touching her. She screams and screams. Usually they last about 5 mins. But right now she is overstressed in her life. Her mom just told her she is pregnant so Trinity is worried about who is gonna take care of the new baby.

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