Night Terrors: What are they and why do they occur?

What Are Night Terrors?

Most parents have comforted their child after the occasional nightmare. But if your child has ever experienced what’s known as a night terror (or sleep terror), his or her fear was likely inconsolable, no matter what you tried.

A night terror is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare, but with a far more dramatic presentation. Though night terrors can be alarming for parents who witness them, they’re not usually cause for concern or a sign of a deeper medical issue.

During a typical night, sleep occurs in several stages. Each is associated with particular brain activity, and it’s during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage that most dreaming occurs.

Night terrors happen during deep non-REM sleep. Unlike nightmares (which occur during REM sleep), a night terror is not technically a dream, but more like a sudden reaction of fear that happens during the transition from one sleep phase to another.

Night terrors usually occur about 2 or 3 hours after a child falls asleep, when sleep transitions from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep, a stage where dreams occur. Usually this transition is a smooth one. But rarely, a child becomes agitated and frightened — and that fear reaction is a night terror.

During a night terror, a child might suddenly sit upright in bed and shout out or scream in distress. The child’s breathing and heartbeat might be faster, he or she might sweat, thrash around, and act upset and scared. After a few minutes, or sometimes longer, a child simply calms down and returns to sleep.

Unlike nightmares, which kids often remember, kids won’t have any memory of a night terror the next day because they were in deep sleep when it happened — and there are no mental images to recall.

What Causes Night Terrors?

Night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep. This may happen because the CNS (which regulates sleep and waking brain activity) is still maturing. Some kids may inherit a tendency for this over-arousal — about 80% who have night terrors have a family member who also experienced them or sleepwalking (a similar type of sleep disturbance).

Night terrors have been noted in kids who are:

·         overtired or ill, stressed, or fatigued

·         taking a new medication

·         sleeping in a new environment or away from home

Night terrors are relatively rare — they happen in only 3-6% of kids, while almost every child will have a nightmare occasionally. Night terrors usually occur between the ages of 4 and 12, but have been reported in kids as young as 18 months. They seem to be a little more common among boys.

A child might have a single night terror or several before they cease altogether. Most of the time, night terrors simply disappear on their own as the nervous system matures.

Coping With Night Terrors

Night terrors can be very upsetting for parents, who might feel helpless at not being able to comfort or soothe their child. The best way to handle a night terror is to wait it out patiently and make sure the child doesn’t get hurt by thrashing around. Kids usually will settle down and return to sleep on their own in a few minutes.

It’s best not to try to wake kids during a night terror. Attempts usually don’t work, and kids who do wake are likely to be disoriented and confused, and may take longer to settle down and go back to sleep.

There’s no treatment for night terrors, but you can help prevent them. Try to:

·         reduce your child’s stress

·         establish and stick to a bedtime routine that’s simple and relaxing

·         make sure your child gets enough rest

·         prevent your child from becoming overtired by staying up too late

Understanding night terrors can reduce your worry — and help you get a good night’s sleep yourself. But if night terrors happen repeatedly, talk to your doctor about whether a referral to a sleep specialist is needed.

Night Terrors: What are they and why do they occur?

Pajama Games: Getting Children to Bed

By Ron Huxley, LMFT

They know every excuse in the book: I need a drink of water. I forgot to
give you a hug goodnight. I heard a noise outside my window. Bedtime can be
a nightly power struggle for parents when children do not want to go to bed
resulting in no winners. Here are some ways parents and children have both won the pajama game:

* Provide a “bedtime friend.” Michael refused to sleep unless his mother lay down next to him every night. At first, this was a comforting experience for both parent and child. But, over time, it took Michael longer and longer to go to sleep and he would cry whenever his mother tried to get up to go to bed herself. His mother quickly recognized that Michael needed a
transitional object or “bedtime friend” that would substitute the feelings of comfort that she provided him and would allow him to go to sleep alone.

Together they went and bought a stuffed animal that Michael found warm and
comforting. His mother talked with him before the trip about finding a “bedtime fiend” and what its purpose would be. After the purchase, she spoke to the stuffed animal, in front of Michael, and told it that it had “a very important job” to help Michael go to sleep. This employed Michael’s young
imagination and helped to transfer the comforting qualities of his mother to
the animal. Of course the transition from parent to transitional object was
not an easy one and Michael resisted the change at first. But with a lot of
patience and perseverance, Michael was able to sleep on his own, with his
new “bedtime friend.”

* Celebrate a good nights sleep. Even the most difficult sleeper has an occasional good nights sleep. Perhaps it was only due to exhaustion that a child didn’t get back up with a bedtime excuse. Celebrate it anyway! In the morning prepare the child’s favorite meal. Sing, dance, or do whatever it takes to give the child positive attention to the basic fact of having a no-excuse, sleep-filled night. Too many parents do their “song and dance routines” at night after the excuses have been given, reinforcing the very problem parents want to stop. During these stress times, ignore the irritating please for water or the annoying claims of nighttime terrors. Instead, redirect the child back to bed with a minimum amount of words or actions. This will rechannel the power struggle and increase the percentage
for successful bedtime routines.

* Discourage scary stories or television show. Sarah complained of monsters
under the bed, ghosts in the closet, and killers outside her window. Nothing
her parents did got rid of their daughter’s fears. Finally they found the root of the problem: Sarah had been watching scary movie at a friends house on a recent sleep over and had been exchanging scary stories with friends at school. Her parents talked to the other parents and convinced Sarah to stop the tales of terror. Within a week she was going to bed without any problems.

* Make a bedtime routine. Being a single mother and working a full time job
forced Eleanor to use a babysitter for her son Ben in the evenings. Ben had
developed a custom of waiting up for his mother and spends some “time together” before going to bed. Eleanor knew he should be going to bed earlier but felt guilty about leaving Ben with someone else and not being with him more. Once, on a very quilt-filled night, after yelling at him
before school, she brought home ice cream for them to share together. After that, Ben expected a treat every night. In addition, his late night routine got later and later. It stopped being simply about waiting for mom to not wanting to go to bed at all. The final straw was when Ben’s teacher called
and informed Eleanor that Ben was falling in sleep in class. She resolved to change the nighttime routine.

She arranged to have more time in the mornings before he had to go to school
to spend together. She enlisted the support of the babysitter to put him in his room and turn off the lights even if he didn’t go to sleep. He was to go through the motions of bedtime regardless. When she came home there were no treats and their interaction was simple and quick: a kiss, a hug, and a tuck into bed with the lights quickly out. It took some doing but Eleanor was able to get Ben to settle into a bedtime routine.

* Share the workload. Getting Tasha to bed was work! Her mother did everything she could think of to get Tasha to stay in bed but after a long day her mother just didn’t have the patience of the energy for a big fight. And Tasha knew all the right buttons to push on mom to make her mad and
manipulate her into giving her what she wanted (even after being told no).
Finally, Tasha’s mother recruited the father to back her up or take over when the mother felt like she was weakening. The parents agreed to a plan of action prior to the bedtime battle and they consistently enforced it, winning the war. Tasha would try and divide and conquer but the greater
numbers and the parental teamwork held firm and Tasha finally stayed in bed.

Getting children to go and stay in bed is no easy task. Parents face he limitless excuses and untiring energy of children who know how to maneuver around their parents with amazing ease. In order for both parties to win the pajama game, parents must use some special bedtime tactics to even the odds. But none of these things will prevail if parents are not consistent and provide positive attention to good nighttime behavior. How parents cope with the bedtime disruptions is as important (maybe more) that what they do to get their children to bed.