Does your child have night terrors? If so, welcome to the club that is not so fun to belong to. It’s difficult to explain a night terror (or sleep terror) to someone who has never actually witnessed it firsthand, but it’s something you will never forget if you do.
The first time my daughter experienced a night terror, she was about 3 years old. I think her dad and I were probably more terrified than she was, especially since she had no memory of the actual event. We were in bed and I heard a blood-curdling scream that sounded like something out of a movie. My husband didn’t budge because he could sleep through a tornado, but I digress….
I ran into her room, and there she was with a look of sheer panic on her little tear-streaked face. She was screaming and reaching, saying “Mama…I want my Mama!” When I reached out to her, she didn’t see me. Her eyes were open, but seemed fixed on something. I tried talking calmly to her to reassure her that Mama was here and she was okay, but she didn’t hear me. It was like she was awake, but she wasn’t. When I tried to pick her up, she began to fight against me, like she was afraid of me. She didn’t know who I was.
I was terrified. I ran and woke my husband who then came in the room to witness what I had just witnessed. We were both at a loss of what to do. I had heard of night terrors, but never knew of anyone who had them, and had certainly never experienced it firsthand. My instincts just told me to try to calm her down, so I turned off the lights and lied in bed with her, stroking her hair and telling her , “Mama is here. It’s ok. Close your eyes”. I just repeated this over and over until she went to sleep. I slept with her that night.
The next morning, it was like it never happened. Nothing. She had absolutely no recollection of anything.
I discussed it with her doctor, and he confirmed that she was, indeed, having night terrors, and there was nothing that could be done about it. He said that she would eventually grow out of it.
For the next 2 years, the night terrors grew more frequent and more worrisome. They began to be more difficult to redirect, even violent at times. I felt so helpless during these episodes because there was nothing I could do as her mother other than try to keep her safe. Most nights she would just scream, and I would wake up and run to her. She would still be in bed.Then, one night I heard screaming that seemed more distant. I ran through the house to find her standing half-way down the basement stairs. She was completely unaware of where she was or what she was doing. From that night forward, we had to use baby gates at her bedroom door to keep her safe from wandering. As an extra precaution, we put alarms on the exits of the house, just in case.
Now, my daughter is almost 6. She has never recalled any of these night terrors. She rarely has them anymore. Once in a blue moon, I will hear her cry out, and as quick as it started, it has ended. I am more than eager to close this chapter in our family’s story.
What are Night Terrors?
According to the Mayo Clinic, night terrors are acute episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep. These episodes in themselves aren’t dangerous, but may become dangerous if accompanied by sleepwalking. There is no known cause.
Screaming while sleeping, appearing awake
uncontrollable or violent movements
Sitting upright in bed
Confusion, lack of understanding
Impossible to calm during episode
What Can You Do?
You should always consult with your pediatrician to make sure you have an accurate diagnosis.
The number one priority during a night terror is to keep your child safe from harm. Harm would typically occur during a sleepwalking episode. Some ideas include:
Use a baby monitor if your child sleeps in another room.
Put baby gates at your child’s doorway to prevent wandering throughout the house at night.
Ensure that your child’s bedroom is safe from objects that may be pulled over onto child such as dressers, TVs, etc (this should be done anyway, regardless of night terrors).
Always use a calm and reassuring voice.
Stay with your child until the night terror has resolved and redirect them back to sleep.
Do not discuss episodes in front of the child as it may instill fear of bedtime (I learned this the hard way).
The Good News
The good news is that this won’t last forever. Kids are resilient and usually grow out of night terrors after a few years. There are no known lasting effects.
If you are going through this now, just know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. This will be over soon. Just hang in there.