Night terrors, a distressing sleep disorder often mistaken for nightmares, can be a bewildering experience for parents and a really scary one too – possibly scarier for the parent than the child, strangely enough.
These sudden episodes of intense fear, screaming, and physical agitation can cause such stress during the night that parents often end up seeking help from professionals as to how to manage it.
In Ireland, like elsewhere, night terrors are relatively common among children, affecting their sleep quality and overall well-being. While precise statistics on night terrors in Ireland vary, studies suggest that around 5-15% of children experience night terrors at some point during their childhood. These episodes tend to peak around the age of 3-4 and may gradually decrease as the child grows.
Night terrors usually occur during the non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep stage, within the first few hours of sleep. My daughter tends to have them around midnight, when she’s been asleep for four or five hours. She will appear to wake up (but will still be fully asleep) she will cry, and sometimes she will even stand up in her cot. Thankfully, her episodes have ended quickly, usually in under a minute, and she dozes off. However, in some cases, the episodes can last a while.
One key thing you should never try to do during a night terror is wake your child up – it sounds contradictory, but waking them could cause more anxiety for them if they become confused about why they’re upset.
There are a few other ways you can help your child if night terrors have become a thing for them:
During a night terror, your child is not fully awake and might not recognise you. Stay calm and speak gently if you decide to approach them.
Ensure the sleep environment is safe. Children may thrash around during night terrors, so remove any sharp objects or hazards from their rooms.
Avoid trying to wake them up
Trying to wake a child during a night terror can prolong the episode or intensify their confusion. Instead, monitor them from a distance to ensure they don’t hurt themselves.
Create a good bed time routine
Establishing a regular bedtime routine can help regulate your child’s sleep patterns and reduce the likelihood of night terrors.
Reduce stress and anxiety during the day
Engage in calming activities, and avoid exposing your child to frightening or intense media in the few hours before bedtime.
Wake them early
If night terrors occur at a predictable time, try gently waking your child 15-30 minutes before the expected episode. This can sometimes disrupt the sleep cycle and reduce the likelihood of a night terror.
Consult a professional
If night terrors are frequent, severely disrupting sleep, or causing distress, consult a pediatrician or sleep specialist. They can provide guidance tailored to your child’s needs.
And bear in mind – most children safely and happily grow out of these, and they happen indiscriminately among young children, so it’s not always an indication that your child is unhappy in some way.