Sunday, November 18, 2007

Night Terrors

As I've mentioned before, my older daughter has a few sleep issues -- some probably were caused by overprotective, nervous, first time parents. But a large sleep issue that she had (hopefully in the past tense now!) was something called Night Terrors. The name alone is frightening enough, and when you have a child that suffers from this, the whole experience is extremely unnerving, to say the least.

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, night terrors are most common in children between the ages of 4 and 12 and affect 1 to 4% of all children. For our daughter, they seemed to start right at the age of 3 and ended (for the most part, we hope!) at the age of 5. From what we have read, and what our doctor told us, a night terror is a frightening dream that usually happens during deep sleep and is accompanied by crying, yelling, screaming, etc. When the child / adult (it does occur rarely in adults -- we know of two people that have them as adults) wakes up after the night terror, they have no memory of the dream or of what they were doing during the "episode."

In our daughter's case, they would not only involve her crying hysterically and yelling at the top of her lungs, but often she would be kicking or hitting (us quite frequently, in the beginning) and in many instances, she would be hopping around on her bed, seemingly wide awake - eyes open - almost as though she were having a temper tantrum. And eventually, she would "go back to sleep" (although in actuality she was asleep the entire time) and in the morning she would have no recollection of what had occurred during the night. In some severe cases, she would actually sleep walk, which was very frightening to us. We put a gate at the top of our staircase, for fear that she would fall down the stairs in the middle of the night.

When the night terrors first began, we had no idea what was going on, and we would take turns going into her room to try to get her back to sleep. Both of us would be losing patience, thinking that she was awake and refusing to go back to bed. She would talk (yell) and some of the things she said sounded like they made sense -- she wasn't speaking gibberish -- and that supported our idea that she was awake. As this went on, we did some research on the internet and we spoke with our doctor, and we all came to the conclusion that these were night terrors. There is really not a lot that can be done, the most important thing is to keep the child safe. My husband and I would get around her (especially when she was hopping around her bed) and we would put our arms out, like a big circle, enclosing her but not touching her. In our experience it is extremely difficult to wake someone up during a night terror. We did on several occasions try an "old wives tale" that we read about on the internet, and that was to put her feet in cool water. Someone on an NT support website mentioned dunking their child's feet in the toilet out of desperation one night -- we just ran some cool water over her feet in the sink. It seemed to calm her down a little bit.

We also started to pay more attention to what we determined to be "triggers." We made sure that she was on a strict schedule -- we had been pretty lax about this early on -- some kids get cranky if they don't get to sleep on time. Ours would often have a night terror -- that will get you to stick with a schedule! Another thing seemed to be if she had a really active, overstimulating day. I vividly remember her having night terrors when we were out of town, staying at my brother-in-law's house -- we were in the living room, trying to watch "Desperate Housewives" and our daughter started screaming. My husband and I went in and did our "safety circle" around her, as she hopped around on the guest bed. My brother-in-law had NO idea what was going on, but my sister-in-law and I had discussed it before, so she was explaining it to him. It's hard for people that have never experienced this to understand -- he couldn't understand why she didn't just go to sleep. We realized that even though we had gotten her to bed at her usual time that night, she had been playing all day with her cousins, was super excited to be visiting the family, and it was just a little too much for her.

It has been such a relief to get through nearly 2 years without a night terror. We still keep her on a strict bedtime schedule, for the most part, and we have been very good with her sister's schedule. They say that night terrors run in families -- we are certainly hoping that is not the case in ours!

For anyone who would like more information on night terrors, there are a multitude of sites on the internet, one that I found informative is And certainly, contact your physician or pediatrician. Night terrors are extremely stressful to deal with, but you can get through them!

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