Night Terrors: Holding Sleep Hostage

Most parents feel a sense of dread or anxiety when someone even mentions night terrors. Nothing quite compares to the experience of one’s child screaming and thrashing, all while wide-eyed and seemingly awake. My own mother tells the story of wrangling me into the car in the middle of a night terror and driving me around with the windows down. Her hope was that the movement of the air against my face would calm me from yelling “Get me out of here!” Something clearly seemed horribly wrong.

The next morning, my frazzled mother asked me about the incident just hours prior. I had no memory of it whatsoever. My eyes had been wide open. I was out of my bed. I had even been put in the car and driven around until I calmed down in the back seat. How could I possibly have no memory of all that activity?

Unlike nightmares, children have no recollection of night terrors. These experiences happen usually earlier in the night and during the deepest stage of sleep when the mind is least active. Essentially it has been described as the body acting out without any input from the higher functioning mind.

Night terrors typically happen during times of stress in a child’s life. For example, they may occur when the family moves to a new house, divorce or remarriage of parents, addition of a new sibling, or change of schools.

The bad news is that they are very difficult to stop in the moment. Attempting to awaken a child during a night terror is ineffective at best. At worst, successfully arousing a child having a night terror leaves the child confused, disoriented, and frightened.

There are several bits of good news. First, night terrors tend to be temporary. They often only last a few minutes at a time and children almost always outgrow them. Night terrors are quite rare in adults.

Second, because there is no dream content associated with night terrors, the experience is much more traumatic for the parent than the child. With this in mind, treating night terrors is fairly straightforward. The parent first needs to remember to not panic. Though the child acts like they are in great distress, they are actually in no distress at all. In the midst of a night terror, the parent’s role is to keep the child safe from injuring themselves. This may mean trying to block escape from a room or the house. It could also involve removing potentially dangerous objects from the child’s reach, or padding the area with extra pillows if the child is thrashing.

For the majority of families experiencing this, the best plan is to ride it out as best you can. The behavior should stop. In rare cases, if it becomes too disruptive, causes physical injury, or results in excessive daytime sleepiness, parents should consult with the pediatrician. Occasionally medication or evaluation for other sleep disorders may be necessary, but these are the exception, not the rule.

For me and my mother, the solution was to help me work through the disruption of going to summer day camp for the first time. The stress of the new environment, the new people, and the new expectations was enough to trigger the night terrors. My mother talked to friends about it and learned that she is not alone in this frightening experience. Ultimately, what seemed like a horribly traumatic experience at the time has become a distant memory for the both of us, as it will for most families.

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