Night Terrors were a horrible time in our parenting, and by our I mean mine. My husband slept through most of them. When night terrors first made an appearance in our home, I had no idea they even existed. One night my daughter woke up and I thought she was teething or had a wet diaper. The next thing I knew, I had a tiny screaming banshee in my arms who I found wandering around her room looking around like she'd never been there before. If you’re like me, and afraid of everything in your own home after midnight, then night terrors certainly don't help those midnight wake-up calls.
It took me awhile and a lot of digging around to figure out what they are, why they happened, and how to help control them.
How do I know if it's a night terror or a nightmare?
If you need to peel your child off the couch to get them to go to bed, it was a nightmare. If you’re the one who needs whiskey and a crucifix to fall asleep, it was a night terror.
What are night terrors?
Besides being a parent’s personal Twilight Zone, without Rod Serling narrating from your living room, which would actually be scary since he's been dead since 1975, night terrors are a reaction of fear. This happens as your child moves through the two stages of REM sleep: from deep to light—about two to three hours after they fall asleep. No one knows why fear happens to be the reaction, Nine out of ten parents agree that they would prefer the reaction to be any other emotion than fear, (except laughter, that's just as creepy after bedtime). The 10th parent is my husband, who is sleeping.
What happens during a night terror?
Your child could: be agitated, not easily woken up or comforted, wander around aimlessly, scream, speak in tongues (just kidding. I hope), mistake people or objects for dangerous things. Sadly, they won't notice you there because they're not awake... or asleep. When the episode is over, your child will go back to sleep without any issues, leaving you to go back to bed and try to mentally process what just happened. In the morning, your child won’t remember any of it, but you likely won't forget because, it's creepy.
How do you stop them?
Initially, I tried to calm my child down which made it much worse. It’s like when you’re afraid of the machete-wielding stranger wearing someone else’s face, and he sees that you fell and twisted your ankle, then drops his knife and runs over to help you – because he feels bad he made you fall. Then you scream until your throat hurts and you cry and try to drag yourself away from him like a slug. That’s what happened when I tried to calm her down. Waiting it out worked for us. Sitting in a low-lit room kept the crying to a minimum until she simply woke up. Sure it was creepy having a child on my lap who wouldn't look at me but through me. With only emptiness in her eyes. She never hissed at me, and I'm pretty sure I still have my soul, so I figured we were okay. She simply went from a daze to her normal self again after awhile. When she made eye contact and smiled at me, I knew she was awake, and she had few issues going back to sleep.
How can you prevent night terrors?
Overtired kids are the most likely to have them. That was our biggest issue. If she skipped a nap, we made sure she went to bed an hour early, and that usually solved the problem.
Kids who are hot can also get them. Our daughter was well supplied with, “nature’s blanket,” better known to the layperson as, “baby fat.” We used to forget that she didn't need flannel pajamas and four fleece blankets.
For those who tend to routinely get night terrors, waking them up after they’ve been asleep for a little while might alter their sleep pattern. This worked for us on a few occasions when we couldn't make up for the lost nap times.
Fear is scary, especially at night and when you can't control it – that's really how most of parenting is. Especially when it has to do with your child. Thankfully, night terrors are nothing more than a reaction. They aren't a medical condition or anything that is permanent. In fact, by four or five, most kids will have outgrown them. So, as creepy as they are, there really is nothing to be afraid of. Unless, of course, your child looks through you while delivering a message from Rod Sterling.