Night Terrors in Children – What Should I do?
Nightmares and Night Terrors in Children – What Should I do?
It’s the middle of the night and you wake up to your child screaming at the top of his lungs. You race to his bedroom to find him thrashing around with a look of fear and panic in his eyes. What should you do? Your first thought is to go and comfort him, but is that really what you should do? The answer depends on whether it’s a nightmare or a night terror.
If you do try to interfere,it can often make the night terror worse,or prolong the episode.
What causes nightmares? Nightmares are scarier versions of regular dreams, occurring during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Since REM sleep usually occurs in the early morning hours, nightmares tend to occur during this time. The child usually remembers the nightmare when he or she wakes up, and can talk about it in detail. If your child has a nightmare, reassure him or her with a cuddle and a calm voice, and remind him or her that it was just a dream and not reality. It often helps to talk about the dream to distinguish between what is real and what is not.
Night terrors in toddlers, which may look and sound like nightmares, are in fact very different from nightmares and should be treated differently. Night terrors occur during sleep arousals between sleep stages – those brief moments of awareness during deep sleep. Although we all have partial awakenings between sleep cycles, night terrors occur when these brief awakenings don’t go smoothly. The child is stuck between an awake and an asleep state, where he or she is trying to wake up but cannot completely, creating a confusional event. Since our deepest sleep is during the first half of the night, night terrors will occur during that time and often at the same time each night if they happen frequently. They are most likely to occur in children 4 to 12 years old, with most outgrowing them by adolescence. Although the child may be thrashing around, screaming, or running around, the child is actually sound asleep and almost impossible to wake up. The child will be completely unaware of anyone’s presence even though his or her eyes may be wide open. The episode may last anywhere from a few minutes to an hour, and as soon as it’s over the child will settle down and go back to sleep as if nothing happened, with no memory of the event.
It’s important to know that night terrors are completely normal, harmless, and are not linked to a psychological issue or traumatic event.
So what do you do if you child is having a night terror? The best thing to do is just watch him or her to make sure of safety, and let him or her get through the episode without waking or intervening. If you do try to interfere, it can often make the night terror worse, or prolong the episode. Since the child will have no memory of the event, it is best to avoid discussing the night terror, as this could confuse and embarrass.
It’s important to know that night terrors are completely normal, harmless, and are not linked to a psychological issue or traumatic event. They most often occur because of overtiredness or change in routine, so ensure your child is getting adequate sleep and has a normal schedule. Put your child to bed 30-60 minutes earlier each night to help them become better rested. Also, remember to remind yourself that it is much worse for the parent witnessing the event than for the child going through it.
To read more about night terrors in children and nightmares click here.
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