Healthy Kids    

Terrors in the night!

Just a bad dream? Or something worse?

Tips for dealing with night terrors

Inconsolable screaming... Uncontrollable thrashing... Open yet unseeing eyes...

These are all symptoms of night terrors.

This dramatic form of sleep disruption can occur in children at any point between 3 and 12 years of age and peaks around 4 years old. But how do parents know when their child is really suffering from a night terror and not just a bad dream? How do we know what to do when they occur?

Barbara Quintana of Fishkill was extremely concerned when her son, Monty, started having screaming fits after she put him to sleep. The episodes started when he was 9 months old.

“The night terrors were so bad that when I put him to bed at night, I would literally be praying that he would not have one,” she recalls.

Quintana took her son to see Dr. Christian Hietanen at Premier Medical Group: Pediatric Division in Poughkeepsie. After a series of questions, Hietanen confirmed that it was indeed night terrors and gave her some helpful tips to get her through each episode.

“The most important thing is not to try to cuddle them or get them out of it when it’s going on,” she says. “It just makes it worse!”

READ MORE: A pediatrician's advice on getting your child to sleep

Quintana and her mother would watch helplessly as Monty screamed and threw himself around. They made sure not to interfere or turn on the lights. After anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes, the night terrors would stop. Monty, who is now 5, outgrew the night terrors by the time he turned 2.

Symptoms of Night Terrors
According to Kerrin Edmonds, a certified child sleep consultant and founder of the baby and child sleep consulting practice, Meet You In Dreamland, night terrors can be pretty severe.

“A true night terror is quite violent in nature and usually involves the child leaping from their bed, with agitated sleep walking or running with a real look of terror on their face and may include loud screaming,” she says. “A true night terror also includes the possibility of the child hurting themselves or breaking things. This is much rarer to see.”

Confusional Events
Through her research, Edmonds also found that there is some confusion between a true night terror and what is also known as a “confusional event.” Confusional events occur when a child’s body is in a deep stage of sleep and trying to come out.

“During these transitional periods, the body’s ‘drive to wake’ and ‘drive to sleep’ meet head on. Most of the time they can make these transitions smoothly — they might just moan, roll over, grab their blanket, etc. But sometimes when these two drives meet, they collide head on and in a sense create a collision with the brain and body and this creates a sleep terror or confusional event.”

Punching and hitting
Jen Alleva of Fishkill spoke to therapist Beth Reiman of Family Works in Hawthorne to try and get to the bottom of her son Nick’s sleep disruptions when she noticed they were a bit more intense than the average nightmare.

“When I first started dealing with it, I pulled him out of bed, afraid he would wake the baby, and he flipped out on me; punching and hitting me. It took me three times longer to calm him down because I moved him,” she says. “My pediatrician, Dr. Jaime Odell in Yorktown Heights, told me if I pinpoint the exact time it is happening, I may be able to bypass it by gently moving or semi-waking him up to disrupt that transition period.”

Alleva’s pediatrician also noted that night terrors occur when a child is falling asleep and his body moves into a deep sleep. This is what makes it difficult to wake a child if this happens.

“Just talk softly and gently, possibly rubbing their back, trying to smooth them over to a calm, deep sleep,” she said.

READ MORE: Tips for raising mindful kids

What should you do?
So what should you do if you think your child is experiencing night terrors? Let’s recap the advice given to us by the moms featured above.

Leave them in their crib or bed, and do not disturb them. If the child is going to harm herself, or seems violent, the consensus says only then should you interfere.

Staying by her side and keeping a close watch on her is key. Letting the episode play out and run its course may be hard, but it seems to be the most effective remedy. Do anything you can to soothe her and make her feel comforted without moving her.

“Night terrors are fairly common and most children grow out of them before their pre-teen years,” says Edmonds. “Knowing the triggers can help you prepare for your child's next episode and being proactive and making the appropriate changes to counter act them could keep them at bay or minimize the duration.”

While there is no treatment for night terrors, you can help prevent them. Night terrors can occur in children who are overtired or ill, taking a new medication, or sleeping in a new environment.

Try to reduce your child's stress and establish and stick to a bedtime routine that's simple and relaxing. Make sure your child is getting enough rest and prevent your child from becoming overtired by staying up too late.

Understanding night terrors can help you get a good night's sleep yourself. If night terrors happen repeatedly, talk to your child’s doctor about whether a referral to a sleep specialist is needed.

Theresa Narvesen lives in Wappingers Falls with her husband and daughter.