As a parent, there are few things that are quite as terrifying as waking up to your child screaming in the middle of the night. One of the most common reasons this may occur in small children is because of sleep terrors. When they are having a night terror it is often more scary for you than it is for them, especially if you do not know how to deal with these incidents.
The first thing to help prepare a parent for their child’s next sleep terror is to know that nightmares and night terrors, though similar, are different in nature.
Everybody’s had one. These are those vivid dreams that you often remember years later. When your child has a nightmare it typically happens later in sleep, during the REM phase.
Typically with these types of dreams children wake up with a feeling of intense fear or dread and it can sometimes be hard to fall back asleep.
These are caused by a nighttime disturbance or anxiety. The nightmare is projected in the dream state as some distortion of reality or the scene can come completely from the imagination.
These incidents, often referred to as “sleep terrors”, are a little more complex. When a night terror occurs the child is normally sitting bolt upright and have their eyes open wide. They can also be screaming, which is probably why you woke you up to begin with.
While the child’s physiology may demonstrate that they are awake, during these incidents children typically remain asleep and can be rather difficult to arouse. If you do manage to wake your child up, do not be surprised if they do not remember the night terror. They may recall certain feelings, emotions, and even some vague information but not the dream itself.
Night Terrors often occur while your child is in deep sleep, also called slow wave sleep. These incidents can last anywhere between 5 and 30 minutes.
Children who experience one of these will often stay asleep and lie back down without needing to be comforted, this is why these incidents can sometimes be more scary for the parent than it is for the child. Parents can take comfort in knowing that this condition is most prevalent in young children and typically fades as the child gets older.
What to do as a parent?
During these events your child is okay, and the best thing to do is sit by their side, making sure they remain safe as you wait it out together.
Parents need to ensure that their child’s sleeping environment is as safe as it can be. For example, if they are sleeping on a bunk bed it may be best to move them to the floor, for the time being. There should be nothing in their sleeping space that could potentially harm them, so making sure to pick up in their room before tucking them in will be very beneficial.
It can help to put yourself between your child and any items in their room that could possibly hurt them, like a stray cord or lamp. These incidents can often include sleepwalking, so it will also be beneficial to make sure all the doors and windows are both closed and locked.
When to go to the doctor?
While most of the time there may be no need to talk to the doctor, when and if your child’s problem becomes an ongoing concern, it is okay to consult their pediatrician for a diagnosis and to get some extra help. It may even be worth your while to take them to a sleep specialist to receive treatment.
Whether it be nightmares or night terrors, the most important thing parents can do for their child is to make sure that they are safe when these incidents occur. This is done by taking the proper precautions and taking the child to the doctor when necessary.
So, hopefully, the next time you have a child that is going through a period of night terrors, you now have the tools to best help both them and yourself to better overcome these frightening incidents.