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.

night-terrors-how-to-cope

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. Sharon Riebel says

    Wow – this is so what we went through with my youngest son. I wish I had this information before we had to deal with it. He is four now, but started having night terrors about 18 months old, for almost two years, three or four times a week. I started dreading nighttime because it felt like a ticking bomb, waiting to see if this would be another night of screaming. We always sat with him, but like you figured out with your son, we couldn’t do anything for him. It’s incredibly draining on parents and I have forward this to my step-daughter because her daughter is now going through it. Great article and very helpful for parents who may feel alone when dealing with this.

  2. Jamie says

    My little boy had night terrors for quite some time. They are quite difficult on both the child and the parents. Our little guy did eventually out grow them. We found that if he took a nap during the day it seemed to help prevent night terrors from happening. Not always, but definitely reduced the incidence of them. We found that the best way we were able to help him come out of one was to turn on a lamp/light in the room, hold him close and keep saying his name- semi loudly.

  3. mercy says

    I have dealt with these on and off with my 3yo. He just sits there and cries and cries hard. He only thrashes around if I try to do anything. It is so hard to just watch him and not do anything. Especially when others who don’t understand that I can’t just make it stop.

  4. Lauren says

    We have been dealing with night terrors for sometime now. My boy is 2 years old and experienced his first one at six months old. He went six months without having another one but after a year old they got worse. I asked our pediatrician about it and he recommended 1mg melatonin, it helped him fall asleep faster but they still happened. I was finally at my wits end and talked to a buddy of ours(he is a dr) and he said we may need to see a pediatric neurologist. So yesterday we did he seems to think it is a nocturnal seizure. It’s is hard to differentiate between the two. My uncle also had night terrors and my grandmother he’s witnessed these and said they are the same as my uncles night terrors. We go for a 24 hour EEG but I’m wondering if anyone has had a diagnosis of nocturnal seizures? I’m still convinced its night terrors based on his actions. Any help would be appreciated.

    • Jamie says

      I definitely want an update on this when you find something out! I don’t have any diagnosis or haven’t read into anything on it. But when I described George’s night terrors to my sister-in-law I told her they almost seemed like a seizure they were so out of his control. I’m curious to hear more.

  5. cara says

    My son does something that sounds like this but it is less often in the middle of the night and more when he is waking from a nap or gets woken up. He eventually will respond and come get a hug from me then slowly snap out of it… awake though not back to sleep. Would this still be considered a night terror? Has anyone had a similar experience? He used to do it every single day after his nap for a few minutes up to an hour. Then he stopped for about 6 months … I thought it was past us but he has now started to do it again.

    • Jamie says

      George sometimes does this too during the day. These photos are actually from after a nap. We call them ‘day terrors’ but I don’t know if they’re related or not.

    • Laura says

      My 18-month-old daughter has them at nap time and every once in a while at night (about an hour after having gone to bed). It’s just heart-breaking. She had one this past weekend while we were on a road trip, so we could only console her in public. All these people were walking by kind of smiling at us, thinking it was a regular temper tantrum. Talk about terrible!!! The only thing that really “works” for us is to try to hold, rock, and shush her until she comes out of it. It is generally best if we let her fall back asleep, even if it’s a nap. She’ll go back to sleep for another 45 minutes to an hour and then wake up completely normal, like nothing happened. I agree that it also seems related to being woken up at the wrong time or in the wrong way or something. I’m reading through these comments planning to try every single tip!

  6. says

    It is nice to see someone else’s journey with night terrors, my 8 year old has dealt with them for years, it is such a horrible thing for parents to go through. Our doctor told us at his last check up, that 2-3 hours after he falls asleep wake him up just enough to make sure he is awake and let him fall asleep after doing this for 10 days they say it will reset his REM sleep cycle, I’m hoping this helps us, and maybe you as well. Hope you have a great week!

    Nicole

  7. tricia says

    Jamie- I will be referencing this in a post I will be publishing for the What To Expect (WTE) Moms site- we also struggled with Night Terrors before we knew what they were- now, we know that periods of high stress trigger them- and with the onset of allergy-induced asthma, disrupted sleep because of breathing issues can also trigger them…we are so lucky to have a child pulminologist who is also a child sleep expert who helped us to understand that! I figured it out by reading the excerpt in the What To Expect The First Year series and it changed everything for us and how we handle them. Once it is published, will link to this post and will let you know! :) Thanks!

  8. Jenn says

    For children with night terrors, try taking their socks off. Sounds weird, I know, but that’s what did it for our daughter. No socks, no footie pajamas, they stopped and only came back when my husband forgot at left her sock on at bedtime.

    Good luck, I hope this helps!

  9. Beth says

    Thank you for this post. It has helped to validate that my little girl is not going through this alone. Cate is three-and-a-half, and has been having night terrors on and off for the past six months. Dealing with her episodes has been a touch-and-go process because the hardest part as a parent is watching your child go through something like this and you not be able to make it stop in an easy way.

    In Cate’s situation, I have realized that it seems more likely to happen during times when she may get overheated during naps and at bedtime. When she wakes, it is usually in the form of screaming at the top of her lungs or hysterically crying out for “Mommy.” Even though I go to her and speak softly, she does not seem to recognize me at all. Instead, the screaming and calling out for her mommy may go on for 15 minutes or more, and she will generally focus on something in the room and scream louder, saying how scared she is. It’s heartbreaking. It can take anywhere from 30-45 minutes for her to calm down and recognize me.

    Like you, I have learned over time to leave her be in terms of actually trying to touch her and just ensure that she is away from anything that could harm her. I speak softly and just guide her through it until she finally comes around and acknowledges who I am. I have actually videotaped her once to see my reactions in order to really get a feel for our interaction during these episodes and to learn more about how I finally seem to get through to her.

    This definitely is a sleep disorder. It’s like they are awake physically, but not coherent of what is around them. Very disturbing and emotionally draining on kids and parents…

  10. Emily @ Love{&}Bugs says

    I had night terrors as a child. If it’s any consolation to you, I don’t and never did remember them. I did eventually grow out of them as well — probably somewhere between 8-11 years old. Hang in there!

  11. says

    My daughter is 21 months old and suffers from night terrors a few times a week. This article describes her terrors perfectly! Thank you for sharing.
    We have found that she tends to have a terror if she goes to bed on a full stomach, I don’t know why, but she does.
    Usually when she has a terror, I try to cuddle (which you’re right, its tiring and it hurts), but I think I will just let it run its course from now on. Its so heartbreaking.

  12. Michelle says

    Thanks for this post. While its such a HARD thing to go through its comforting to know that other “normal” people go through it to. My son (now 4) experienced night terrors at least 5 times a week for nearly a year when he was three. Our doctor and family members blamed us, told us that his homelife was too stressful and that was the reason he was getting them. I was devastated thinking I was the one to blame, that I was such a bad mum and my son was suffering – it really sent me under. I wish I could have read something like this last year for comfort. In the end we just had to let it run its course – went to his room and stood next to his bed to make sure he was safe….we never talked as some suggested, that only made it worse for us. We made sure he went to bed early enough so he didn’t get overtired, but sometimes it didn’t matter. Its been months now since he has had a terror. :) He still gets an occasional nightmare but they are so much easier and quicker to deal with! Hang in there – they don’t last forever :)

    • Jennifer says

      This makes me sad to hear this… I really hope you found a different doctor! It is completely NOT your fault! I think a lot of people go through this and just don’t talk about it or are worried about being blamed for it. It is great to have a place where people can share similar experiences so they know they are not alone!

  13. Jennifer says

    My oldest son has these too and as crazy as it may sound, it was a relief to finally figure out what it was (when he was little). His too were inconsistant, we never knew when he was going to have one and nothing about our day could explain why he would have one. To this day, we try to make sure he doesn’t get overheated while sleeping, so light jammies if any and definitely no socks.
    One thing that comforts our son and usually helps him through the night terror is telling him what he wants to hear. Like if he wants his mom, I don’t say “I’m right here” I say “OK, I’ll get her”. As he got older once we thought he was out of the terror, we would ask him questions about the day or where he was. If he is calm and still says “I don’t know”, he is not done with the terror and typically can get all worked up again, so we don’t leave his side.
    Another thing we figured out is he is usually completely terrified of the sound of my husband’s voice and only I can go through it with him. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Don’t take offense to that, it’s not personal.
    It can be a scary thing, and upsetting too. I always tried to tell myself that he is ok and it’s harder on me than on him.
    Good luck to you and your family!

  14. Christel says

    We just recently went thru this 3 weeks ago with our youngest (2 1/2 yrs old). Hers was medication that affected the brain due to being put under for surgery and post-op pain medicine with codine. We stopped the tylenol with codine immediately after the episodes had started. I called the ent surgeon first thing in the morning after the second episode. It was the scariest thing I have ever witnessed as a parent. I felt so helpless. When I finally got a call back from the surgeon she told me they were very common in the smaller children after surgery and to try benadryl every night before she goes to bed for a week and then slowly wean her off of it. It was a miracle and I finally had my happy sweet little girl back. We have not had a night terror since and I can say we have been sleeping fearless of any more episodes without benadryl for a week and a half now. I pray your son is able to grow out of the night terrors very soon and everyone sleeps happily ever after again. And I hope this helped.

  15. Sujeily Santiago says

    My son has always experienced night terrors and the best solution I have found that has actually prevented then is giving my son melatonin. I buy this one in particular from Walmart– it’s a purple bottle. Strawberry flavored and they just dissolved in the mouth! I can say we have gone from 2-4 episodes a week to ab 1 every 6 months. I started this regimen once my sons psychologist told me (my son is on the autism spectrum). So I would def recommend it! He’s been takin melatonin since he was ab 2 and it works like a charm :) good luck!

  16. Amy says

    My son had night terrors. I was terrified until I saw a story on Good Morning America that talked about it. They suggested going in to their room about 45 minutes after they fall asleep (yes, you need to be paying attention and be vigilant) and nudging them to simply turn over or switch from one side to another. They said that simple movement helps the brain transition from the first part of sleep in to REM. Night terrors are triggered when that transition is not smooth. It seemed to REALLY help!!! Hope that helps.

  17. Jamie says

    With my 2.5 year old it’s lack of sleep or stress – so if he’s been up too late or too busy for a couple of days or the first few days after his dad leaves for work (he works away from home so when we say goodbye to daddy it’s for a couple of months). Cosleeping has helped quite a bit – it doesn’t prevent them or anything, but he’s got lots of room in our bed to move around and when he does calm down and return to normal sleep he can just pass out where he is.
    I always feel terrible for other people when I hear that their kids have night terrors but also that same bit of relief – not feeling alone is always nice too :)

  18. kristie says

    We went through this for over a year, 3 or so times a week 2 or 3 times a night…I was going crazy. There was nothing to tell me what to do no one I knew went through this. Then, I read this little blurb at the end of a research paper on night terrors. It said that some parents had found success in ending these by waking the child approximately 15 minutes before the terrors start, then letting the child go back to sleep. You should do this for 7 nights after each terror. This will do 2 things reset their sleep and teach them how to wake up and go right back to sleep. It worked miracles for us….we immediately stopped having multiple events a night and went down to one a month, then none in over a year. We would get our daughter up have her pee and she would go right back to sleep. I was skeptical…but desperate…and it worked.

  19. Laura says

    Hi Y’all! I just found this article on Pinterest and read the article, but not all the responses. My now almost 11 year old used to have night terrors as a toddler. I still don’t know what causes them. But…one thing we tried and it seemed to work for her, was to limit her sugar intake. She stopped eating most things that contained sugar by 7pm. As soon as we did that, the night terrors stopped. When we forgot, or thought they were over and she had too much sugar after 7pm, she had them again.
    We still try to keep her sugar intake low at night, but ever since she was a toddler she stopped having them when we followed the no sugar rule. I also remember sometimes taking a squirt bottle of water in with me when she was screaming and squirted her hands, etc…and that seemed to break the terror and then she would just want hugs and to go back to sleep.

    I hope this may help most of you or at least some of you. Many prayers to y’all!

    Take Care~

    Laura

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