In the past three and a half years, I’ve been called into my son’s room in the middle of the night for a wide variety of things. One night at roughly 2 AM, he called me in to tell me that he had elbows. Another time, he called me into his room at around midnight because he “forgot what my shirt looked like.” Other times, he just needs an encore performance of my own personal rendition of Green Day’s hit song “Time of your Life.”
Yet the hardest nights have been the ones where he doesn’t call for us; it’s the nights that he cries without yelling for daddy and mommy. Those are the nights that he has a night terror.
While night terrors sound like a synonym for nightmares, they really are quite different. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Sleep terrors are episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep. Also known as night terrors, sleep terrors often are paired with sleepwalking. Like sleepwalking, sleep terrors are considered a parasomnia — an undesired occurrence during sleep.”
So what does that look like? It generally starts with our son crying. We head into his room to find him sitting straight up in bed. His eyes are open, but he’s not awake. He will continue to cry. He will refuse his beloved stuffed animals. He won’t accept any comfort from us, often retreating to the safety of a corner. He will be unresponsive and inconsolable. You can feel his terror and panic. You can see how disoriented he is. These episodes sometimes last just a few minutes, but other times it can be significantly longer.
I can’t even begin to describe how gut wrenchingly terrible it is to see that kind of raw fear in your child and not be able to do anything about it. To reach out to your child, only to have them struggle away from you to run screaming to the corner. Upon returning to our room, after getting him through a particularly intense round of night terrors on Christmas Eve, my wife and I just held each other and cried. Less than an hour later, he had another episode. After we got him through the second one, I spent the rest of the night on the floor of his room with the lights on and my son in my arms.
So who gets night terrors? According to KidsHealth.org, “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 happen in kids between 4 and 12 years old, but have been reported in babies as young as 18 months. They seem to be a little more common among boys.”
It’s common for children who to experience night terrors when their sleep schedule has been interrupted. In the case of our son’s Christmas Eve episode, he had been overstimulated by the frenzy of the day. Nap time had been shifted to make an early church service, and Christmas Eve at his grandparent’s house was an evening of holiday excitement followed by a significantly later than usual bedtime.
One of the hardest things about your children experiencing a night terror is the feeling of helplessness. There really isn’t much you can do until they come out of it. It’s not recommended that you attempt to wake them up, as it can lead to greater disorientation and can only make the episode last longer. The best thing you can do is just be patient and keep your child safe throughout the episode. The terror will pass. It’s much better to focus on preventing the night terrors than try to take an active part in ending one while it is happening.
Believe it or not, there is a comforting aspect to these terrible episodes. When my son comes out of them, he has no memory of what happened. He doesn’t remember aspects of his dreams or even that he had just been screaming in terrified panic for the last half hour. Shortly after it’s over, he is his happy, giggling little goofball self again. It truly is much worse for us than it is for him.
There are a number of great resources out there on the internet in regards to night terrors, but should you feel concerned that your child is consistently experiencing night terrors, I would always recommend contacting your pediatrician.