How to Help Your Child Through Night Terrors

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  • July 30, 2014

This week’s video blog is from Kid’s in the House, a wonderful parenting resource filled with expert advice on hundreds of topics, including sleep.  This video will help you determine whether your child is experiencing nightmares or night terrors and how to best help your child through this sometimes scary phase. Here’s the transcript:

“Some parents confuse nightmares with night terrors, but they’re actually quite different. Night terrors tend to happen within the first two hours of going to sleep. And what’s interesting about night terrors is that your child’s eyes may be open, and they may be screaming for you, but they are not awake. They are actually still asleep and they are not dreaming.

As they are going from non-REM to REM sleep, they get a little tripped up and wake up and are usually inconsolable. Night terrors can last anywhere from 5-20 minutes, which is very scary to watch  your child be inconsolable for that amount of time, especially because they don’t seem to recognize you or know what’s going on.

What you need to do when this happens is as little as possible. If you interact with them or touch them, the night terror may last longer than just letting them go through it. Make sure they’re safe and that they’re attended to and everything’s okay. You will probably want to stay with them because it’s extremely hard to leave your child in that agitated state. It’s very upsetting to watch until it subsides and they go back to sleep.

Many parents ask me what causes these terrors and how can you avoid them? The number one cause for a night terror is sleep deprivation, usually caused by going to bed too late. It could happen from traveling, time zone changes, fevers, developmental milestones, or sleep apnea.

All of these can cause night terrors. There’s also an increased likelihood for boys to more often experience night terrors than girls. And also, if you or the other parent had a history as a child of sleepwalking, then your child’s going to be more likely to have night terrors. The good news is the first thing to do is to start to put your child to bed earlier, even if it’s just by 30 minutes. It can make all the difference in the world and they can usually stop having the night terrors altogether.”

 

What you can do for your child:

 

  • Avoid scary videos, books, etc. prior to bed
  • Don’t play scary games
  • Respond quickly and assure them of their safety
  • Avoid high-dose vitamins at bedtime
  • Check with your pediatrician to make sure your child is not on any medications that might be interfering with his night sleep

 

What you can do as a parent:

 

  • If your child is having a night terror, monitor the child but avoid interfering, as this can worsen the episode
  • Make sure your child is physically safe during the night terror
  • Put your child to bed earlier – even if by only 30 minutes
  • Don’t talk about the terror with your child in the morning

 

If your child is having night terrors two or three times a week at set times during the night (i.e. 2 hours after going to sleep) do the following:

 

  • Keep a sleep log
  • Plan on the episodes taking at least 7-10 days to diminish
  • Wake your child 15 minutes prior to the time he usually has an episode to the point where he mumbles, moves, or rolls over
  • Do this every night for 7-10 nights in a row

 

While these episodes may be scary for you to watch, remember a calm presence of mind will help both you and your child maneuver through a night terror.  Keep in mind that this is a normal experience and be sure to reassure your child as needed.  Stay calm and loving in the morning and continue on with your daily routine.  With love and patience, you both will make it through these middle-of-the-night experiences.

 

If you have experienced a similar situation or have had success, please share your story on The Sleep Lady’s Facebook page.  Supporting each other makes parenting so much easier!

Kim West
Kim is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who has been a practicing child and family therapist for more than 24 years, and the creator of the original gentle, proven method to get a good night’s sleep for you and your child. She is the author of The Sleep Lady's Good Night Sleep Tight, its companion Workbook and 52 Sleep Secrets for Babies. Click here to read more about her.

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