As parents, we all expect that we’ll need to comfort our little angels after an upsetting nightmare from time to time.
However, if you’ve ever witnessed your little one experiencing a night terror, you’ll know how heart-wrenching it can be!
Let’s take a look at the causes of night terrors and what you can do about them.
Nightmares vs. Night Terrors: What’s the Difference?
To understand the difference requires a basic understanding of the different phases of sleep:
- Drowsiness: Baby begins to feel sleepy.
- REM sleep (Rapid-eye-movement sleep): Baby may jerk their arms and legs and twitch their eyes beneath closed eyelids. Breathing may also be irregular.
- Light sleep: Breathing is more regular and baby more still.
- Non-REM sleep: This is a deeper sleep and baby will be harder to wake.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (2013) provides a detailed explanation of baby sleep phases here.
Children typically experience nightmares during the last third of the night in the REM phase.
This lighter stage of ‘dream sleep’ is why older children can often remember their nightmare and become quite upset about it upon waking.
Night terrors take place earlier in the night, during deeper non-REM sleep.
Therefore, children often have no recollection of them the following morning. Jodi A. Mindell, the author of Sleeping Through the Night, explains that this is why night terrors are generally more distressing to the parent than the child!
What are the signs of a night terror?
Although your child won’t remember doing these things, here are some of the signs to watch out for:
- shouting out, crying or screaming
- seeming panicky or confused about where they are
- talking nonsense or babbling
- not responding/ recognizing you when you speak to them
- throwing things
- lashing out with their legs and arms
- wetting the bed
What causes night terrors?
Babysleepsite.com explains how night terrors occur as a ‘glitch’ as babies transition between the various stages of sleep.
One part of the brain is trying to keep them asleepwithand the other is trying to wake them up! Your baby may appear to be ‘fighting’ between waking and sleeping: wriggling, moaning and thrashing about.
The possible factors which may make night terrors more likely include:
- stressful life events
- certain medications
- not getting enough sleep (consider the quality of your child’s daytime naps)
- too much caffeine (something to think about if you’re breastfeeding)
The British National Health Service also states that night terrors may be more common if there is a family history of sleepwalking.
Always contact your doctor if you have any concerns over the health of your baby.
How lost will a night terror last?
Night terrors in babies and toddlers are relatively short episodes, thankfully!
They will typically last only between 1 and 5 minutes. Even in older children, they are unlikely to last more than 10-15 minutes.
Also, do not be surprised if your child experiences more than one night terror in the same night.
At what age are night terrors most likely?
Night terrors are incredibly common and are more likely between the ages of 3 -18 years.
However, they can start from as early as around 18 months of age. A study found that 40% of almost 2000 children experienced night terrors between the ages of 2.5 and 6 years old.
By the age of 12, they had tended to grow out of this phase.
Should I be worried?
Night terrors are entirely normal, although that doesn’t make them any easier to witness as a parent.
They do not cause any long-term psychological harm to the children that experience them- phew! Just read on to make sure your child is safe if they do experience one.
What should I do?
First of all, try not to panic!
- Don’t try to wake your baby (he may become more distressed if he wakes and doesn’t recognize you.)
- Don’t try to hold him (this may make him wilder)
- Stay with him until the episode has passed
- Speak calmly
- Put yourself between your baby and anything which could hurt him (headboard, cot bars etc)
You can also take precautions before bed just like you would for a sleepwalker.
- Remove toys and obstacles from the floor
- Lock accessible windows and outside doors
- Ensure you have a secure stair gate
After the fright has passed, you may choose to comfort your child or to leave them tucked up and undisturbed.
Don’t forget; most likely they won’t remember it the next day, so you are not being mean by leaving them to snooze afterwards!
However, if you notice a pattern of repeated terrors in one night, it may be worth waking your child once the first has passed. Try chatting to them while changing their diaper to rouse them.
This may prevent them going straight back into deep sleep and the night terror repeating itself.
Can I prevent my child’s night terrors?
Sadly, there are no guaranteed ways to prevent them, but here are a few things you might try!
- Help baby to relax By following a consistent bedtime routine, your baby may be more relaxed and this may lessen the likelihood of a night disturbance. Choose a routine to suit you; a warm bath followed by quiet play or reading a book may be an excellent place to start.
- Are they anxious? If your child is old enough to talk, you could try chatting with them the next day to see if anything is making them anxious. It’s probably not worth bringing up the night terror though- as they will not remember it you may frighten them!
- Make a note of when the terrors happen If the episodes seem to occur at a similar time each night, try waking your baby 15 minutes before this. Keep him awake for 5 minutes before letting him sleep again. Try this for a week to see if it has a positive effect.
- Set a schedule A regular routine of naps and feeding throughout the day may make your child feel more secure and settled, as well as ensuring they are well-rested by bedtime.
- Ask for help Although these experiences are prevalent, if your child has repeated night terrors every night, try asking your doctor for advice in case there is an underlying cause.
It won’t be pleasant watching your baby experience these nighttime disturbances, but try to remember- it is a phase! And just like so many baby phases, it will pass!
Until then, try to take comfort in the fact that your little bundle of joy will wake up smiling and gurgling as usual the next morning!