Parenthood

Nightmares can be disruptive and disturbing for families. The most troublesome and terrifying night-time events however, are the dreaded night terrors.

Night terrors are far more distressing to watch than nightmares, particularly for a parent. Unlike nightmares, which are a sleep disturbance, they are seen as a recognised sleep disorder and if they are prolonged,  I would suggest you seek medical attention.

Night terrors tend to happen in the early part of the night. More often than not, they will occur before you have gone to bed yourself. While it may seem like your child has woken up from sleep, in reality they're not really awake at all, yet can still be thrashing around the bed or cot. In a sense, they are in a weird zone, caught somewhere between being awake and being asleep.

Providing comfort and trying to ‘snap the child out of it’ will probably make no real difference to your child at the time. Children are normally quite unaware of the experience and generally they will have no memory of night terrors happening at all. Author Jodi A. Mindell simply described the effect of night terrors in her book Sleeping Through the Night as follows:

"If your child is more agitated, she had a nightmare. If you're the one who's disturbed, she probably had a night terror."

Management of night terrors

The best way to manage a night terror is by simply making the their sleep space a safe place. Make sure they are comfortable, but don’t try and wake them – it will be even more distressing for them. Be there, but allow them to ‘come out of it’ themselves. Children with night terrors will be extremely physically active and can be jumping around their beds quite frantically. Extra cushions and pillows on the floor and at the top of the bed can help reduce any risk of injury. Night terrors can last as long as 45 minutes in some cases, so patience will be top of your priorities list when it comes to managing them.

If your child is experiencing a phase of these night terrors, there is generally no point in discussing it with them the following day. Bear in mind they won’t remember, and if you start talking to the little one about the fact that he or she was screaming and shouting and bouncing around the room, you may actually scare them even more. A fear of going to sleep is the last thing you want your little ones to be feeling.

Treatment of night terrors

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One solution you might find helpful and which, in practice works really well, is to wake your child shortly before the ‘expected terror’. You might find they experience a terror at roughly the same time every night (usually pre-midnight). So, if they have been having terrors at around 10pm each night for a number of nights, I would suggest that you rouse them around 9.30pm, and have a short little chat or offer a drink of water. You are rousing them enough to break the sleep cycle, so the pattern is disrupted in the hope that your child will simply ‘skip’ the terror and continue on with the sleep. It's also a good idea to wake the child again later in the night. Regular or scheduled ‘wakings’ can be really effective in dealing with terrors in the short term. But should they continue, I would seek a medical opinion.

Simple comparison of nightmares and night terrors:

Nightmares

  • Occur in REM sleep (active sleep)
  • Occur during late sleep phase (late at night/early morning)
  • Distressing for parents and children
  • Less motor activity – child probably not thrashing around but will be upset and possibly frightened
  • Less likely to result in injury
  • Child has memory of the event, but might not remember exactly what it is that has woken him or her

Night terrors

  • Occur in non-REM sleep (deep sleep)· Occur during early part of the night
  •  Very distressing for parents; less so for the children
  •  Child very active
  • Incidents may cause injury as child may be thrashing around uncontrollably
  • For the most part, child will not remember events (although parents will probably never forget it)

Niamh O’Reilly is a sleep coach. She's also a baby and childcare guru, a 'parent nanny' and the answer to many a weary parent's woes. When it comes to baby and child issues, Niamh is your woman. Always on hand to offer a no-nonsense solution, in an approachable way.

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