It is late into the night. You are awakened by your child’s incessant screams, and upon rushing to his room, you see him sitting up in bed, seemingly awake but looking dazed and confused. Talking to him does not seem to elicit a response, and neither do your attempts to comfort him. A situation like this would usually make you conclude that all your little one had was a bad dream and encourage him to go back to sleep. But is there more than meets the eye?
What may seem like a common nightmare on the surface may actually be night terror, which exhibits similarities to nightmares but takes place on a far more dramatic scale. Humans spend about roughly a third of their lives sleeping, and this percentage is significantly higher for kids in their infancy and early childhood phases of development.
That said, while sleep – especially quality sleep – is vital to the physical and mental growth in children, sleep disorders and problems are also very prevalent and strike across the age spectrum. According to experts, sleep disorders affect 25 to 50 percent of babies aged six to 12 months, and 15 to 20 percent of toddlers. So how can parents decipher between nightmares and night terrors to ensure their child’s forty winks is not compromised?
Knowing The Enemies Of Slumber
Unbeknown to many parents, night terrors, also known as sleep terrors, are common, with an estimated one to six percent of young children experiencing them at least once, according to WebMD. The disorder usually afflicts kids aged between three to 12 years old but has been reported to affect infants as young as 18 months. By 12 years of age or sooner, the problem usually resolves itself. Unlike nightmares, which tend to occur during REM sleep in the early morning, night terrors typically strike in the late evening during non-REM sleep, which is when the child is transitioning into lighter sleep or even wakefulness.
Another key difference between nightmares and night terrors is that in the former, kids are able to recall what spooked them, while in the case of night terrors, they often will have no recollection of the event in the morning as there were no mental images to recall. All these make night terrors a source of distress and fear for parents witnessing the sleep problem for the first time, and it’s no wonder that these events have historically been attributed to demon possession or other paranormal activities.
Classified as a parasomnia along with other disorders like sleepwalking, night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep, and can be triggered by a myriad of factors, including sleep deprivation and extreme tiredness, stress, sleep schedule disruptions, fever, and certain medications.
There also appears to be a genetic predisposition to having this type of parasomnia. A study that looked at 323 pairs of twins showed six times the incidence in identical versus fraternal twins, and another study revealed more than twice the likelihood of night terrors in the child of a sleepwalking parent.
A night terror episode usually takes place one to two hours after your child goes to sleep, and typically lasts between 10 to 20 minutes, where your child may scream or talk wildly, have faster breathing and a quicker heartbeat, thrash around, appear red-faced and sweat profusely, or even jump out of bed as if fleeing from some invisible monster. It may seem like your child is awake, but they are typically inconsolable and might not even recognise you.
Taming The Terror
Night terrors can be very upsetting for parents, who might feel helpless that they are unable to comfort their child. Remember that while intense, the episodes are fleeting and harmless, so be patient, stay calm, and wait it out while ensuring that your child is safe. Try not to intervene or interact with them, since it will probably be futile and may even agitate them further, making it harder for them to fall back asleep.
Should you be able to wake your child up during a night terror, chances are he is scared and agitated, mostly because of your own reaction to the night terror in the process of shaking or yelling at him to wake up. Instead of trying to wake a child who’s having a night terror, it is usually best to just ensure that he is safe, comfort him, and allow him to fall back asleep once the episode is over.
This article was first published in the Parents World Magazine, Issue 72