Night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, affect between 1% and 6% of children and are more frightening for parents than they are for the child. In fact, children will not remember any details of a night terror, which is very different from a nightmare.
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What is a night terror?
Most people think that a night terror is a bad dream merely because it occurs while your toddler or child is asleep, and the experience resembles a nightmare.
Night terrors follow a pattern but the recurrence of night terrors varies between toddlers. The pattern being referred to is the specific time of the night terrors occur. They usually occur one to three hours after your toddler has fallen asleep, and as strange as it may sound, they remain asleep throughout the whole ordeal and have no memory of the incident. This is largely because night terrors occur during our deep sleep period, while nightmares occur in our REM (rapid eye movement) dream state or light sleep state.
What is frightening for parents is that during a night terror, your toddle may appear to be awake because they will scream, cry, squirm in their beds, talk (mumble), or even get out of bed and walk around. Yet through all of this, your little one will still be fast asleep.
In this night terror state, they will not recognize anyone and will not respond to being consoled. Your toddler might even push you away as though you are the threat. You will notice that your toddler might be sweating and have an increased heart rate, and will more than likely be breathing fast as well. The ordeal may only last a few seconds but may continue up to about 30 minutes.
Night terrors will vary from child to child; they don’t have a set frequency or length of time before they subside, and your child settled back into a peaceful sleep. The best thing parents can do during these episodes is to be close by to make sure your toddler comes to no harm.
Although your child will not recall a night terror, it doesn’t mean that these incidences will not affect them at all. Anxiety during the day may be more prominent as a result of night terrors. As parents, it’s advisable to take action in reducing or preventing the recurrence of night terrors.
The causes of night terror
Many things bring on night terrors where some relate to the quality and quantity of sleep your toddler gets. Anything that interferes with a child in deep sleep can be a possible trigger for a night terror episode except for the fact that the condition is hereditary.
If either one of the parents suffered from night terrors, then the odds are greater of it occurring with their child. Listed below are some other causes of night terror episodes.
- Sleep apnea is viewed as a cause because it relates to breathing difficulties while asleep and tends to affect overweight children more than other children.
- A haphazard sleep routine may trigger night terror episodes. An overtired toddler will sleep much deeper than usual and will, therefore, be more prone to the condition. Having a stable and consistent sleep pattern will reduce the chances of a night terror occurring. Sleep deprivation is known to be the most common cause of night terrors.
- Illness and fever have been listed as a cause but to a lesser degree. A high fever will affect the amount and quality of sleep.
- External loud noise may also disrupt sleep and trigger a reaction.
- A full bladder.
- Medicine, like Benadryl, should be avoided as they too may trigger an episode.
How can I prevent my toddler from having night terrors
The best way to confront night terrors is to exercise guidance and control over your toddlers’ sleep patterns. It’s important to always be aware of your little one’s sleep requirements.
- If your toddler is used to taking an afternoon nap and going to bed at a specific time, you should maintain or revert back to the same routine, especially if your little one experienced a night terror episode. In cases where your toddler refuses to nap, then replacing that time with quiet time may help.
- Monitor the temperature where your toddle sleeps and make sure the room is not too warm as this may disrupt their sleep and bring on a night terror.
- Ask your doctor to prescribe anti-inflammatory medication for fever, inflammation related to illness, or teething as the medication will help to prevent a possible night terror.
- As we have seen, increased temperature as in a fever and too warm a room may cause night terrors, but a hot bath can also increase your toddler’s temperature, so try a cooler bath and comfortable pajamas with light bedding, enough to stay warm but not overheat.
- Night terrors usually occur randomly, but in some cases, they are pretty frequent. If this is the case, you should time when the night terror occurs and try the “prompted awakening” technique. You should awaken your child about 15 minutes before the episode is due and keep them awake for at least 5 minutes before you settle your little one down again. What you are actually doing is breaking the cycle and readjusting your child’s sleeping pattern.
How should I deal with my toddlers’ night terrors?
When your little one experiences a night terror episode, it will create a lot of stress and anxiety for you as a parent. You will be asking yourself ten thousand questions as you try and narrow down the cause.
It’s good of you to be concerned, but jumping to conclusions can result in some difficult and perhaps embarrassing moments as well. Your primary concern is to help your little one get through the episode unharmed, and your next port of call will be to discuss your concerns with a medical professional like your doctor or child’s pediatrician.
Although night terrors may appear terrible, they are mostly harmless, and very seldom are they triggered by an underlying medical condition. Never-the-less, if night terrors persist, it is best to determine the cause and involve medical tests and examinations.
As a parent, it is wise to record times, duration, and any specific behaviour related to the episode and share the information with your doctor. You may find that frequent night terror episodes might begin affecting your child’s daytime activities, and it best to seek medical advice.
What you shouldn’t try and do is to awaken your toddler during a night terror as it is very difficult for them to break from the deep sleep they are in. Your attempts to awaken your child will only fuel the episode and make it last longer.
You need to remain close by to make sure your child comes to no harm. Place pillows around your little one so they don’t bang into anything and hurt themselves. Switch the light on to get rid of shadows that may frighten your child, and if your child allows, you can hold their hand and speak gently, assuring your child that they are safe and everything is fine.
Is there a medical treatment for night terrors?
There is no distinct treatment for night terrors, as there are various triggers for the condition. A medical doctor will look at medical history and do a physical examination to identify underlying causes.
The doctor may also request an ECG to check for a seizure disorder and may recommend a sleep study to check for a possible breathing disorder. It will also be used to track brain activity during sleep.
If stress, anxiety or depression is suspected, your doctor may prescribe medication and will monitor your child’s progress.
What happens if my toddler wakes up from a night terror?
Waking up from deep sleep, even from a night terror, is not impossible, just very difficult. If your child does awaken during a night terror, they will be disorientated and confused, and it will take a while before they calm down and fall asleep again.
Should I discuss the night terror episode with my child?
If your child brings up the subject, then speak to your child and reassure him or her that they were and still are safe. But, if you bring up the subject and your child can’t remember anything, which will most likely be the normal response, you will plant a seed of worry in their mind.
You can, however, fish for confirmation by asking if they slept well and had nice dreams. If your child remembered anything, they would let you know.
Night terrors are considered normal by most standards, but one such episode is enough to trigger a chain reaction in a concerned parent. There is no harm in looking for the cause and possible remedy but only react to facts provided by a medical professional.
In most cases, night terrors can be contained and reduced to isolated incidences if you just pay attention to your child’s sleep requirement. They tend to dissipate completely by age 12 and much sooner in many young children.
Keep your little one well-rested, and never be afraid to discuss your concerns with your doctor