Night terrors are a very dramatic, overnight “waking’s” that typically occur during the first few hours of sleep.
As a parent, they can be incredibly distressing to watch and we often become concerned about the impact these may have on our little ones.
Current statistics state that around 5-10% of children will have night-terrors and they typically begin from 2.5+ years of age.
While there may be some similarities, night terrors are different to nightmares or dreaming and as such, the way we approach night terrors also needs to differ.
The most important thing to know is that night terrors will not have any long-term effects on your child and the majority of children will naturally grow of them.
However, it can be so tough to see your little one so upset and feel helpless, so below is some helpful information and tips on how to help your little one during a night-terror and how to reduce them.
What are night terrors?
Night terrors occur during your little one's sleep, typically within the first few hours of sleep.
Typically, they occur because your little one is “stuck” between being awake and being asleep. They may “awake” enough to get out of bed, talk or scream and have their eyes open, but they seem asleep and are unable to respond to a parent or loved one who is trying to console them.
Most children will have no recollection of the night-terror when they wake, so it is often a lot more distressing for the parent.
Common symptoms of a night terror include:
· Tossing and turning
· Increased, rapid breathing
· Look of panic
· Screaming or crying
· Trashing or legs and arms
· Non-responsive to efforts to console or sooth
· Typically have their eyes closed
· Some children may open their eyes, but have a glassy stare
· Episodes lasting from 5-10 minutes and may happen more than once throughout the night.
Night terrors happen in healthy children and are a part of normal development, however there are some factors that can contribute or lead to night terrors.
It is important to note that night terrors do differ from nightmares or dreams. Nightmares are scary dreams that occur during the second half of the night, typically during “dream sleep”. Little ones will wake fully from this dream, can remember what has frightened them and will be able to be consoled and comforted afterwards and your child will likely remember this event when waking in the morning.
Common Factors Contributing To Night Terrors
While night terrors are a part of normal development, there are some things that are known to play a role in night terrors, or contribute to the frequency and duration of the night terrors.
· Developmental Leaps + new skills
· Changes to usual routines
· Moving homes
· Night Lights
· Sickness and Illness
· Temperature of the room being too hot
· Anxiety or worry in the child
· Screen time
· Preservatives + processed foods high in sugar
· Genetics (If a parent experienced night terrors, it is likely their little one will as well).
If you have noticed an increase in the duration or frequency of your little one’s night terrors, I would suggest to go through the above common factors and see if any of these apply to your little one.
If night terrors are new to your household, or have been happing for a while, you may find it useful to create a log of the night terrors and pay close attention to your little one’s day time routine, activities and their diet. This will give you the ability to see if there are any relationships between something in their routine and the onset of night terrors.
If you are able to find this “trigger”, look at gradually transitioning away from it or removing it from your little one’s routine.
If after completing this log and you can’t find any identifiable trigger, it may be that your little one is progressing through a developmental leap and as such, will just need time, patience and reassurance.
How To Help Your Little One
It isn’t easy to see your little one so upset and distressed and many parents will try and wake their little ones when they are experiencing a night terror, however many parents will feel at a loss on what to do.
Below are some tips on how to help your little one when they are experiencing a night terror.
Waking your little one when they are experiencing a night terror will often make this experience more distressing and it is likely your little one will become afraid, angry and confused upon awaking and seeing you so upset and in the room.
It is important for you to remain calm and quiet and avoid picking up your child if possible. If needed, you may like to give them their comforter (if they have one) and place your hand on them gently.
Night terror episodes usually last between 5-10 minutes, however it can seem like an eternity when your little one is so upset. Keep a watch or clock next to you so you are able to keep track of how long it has been.
If your little one has wet the bed, thrown up or needs to be changed, ONLY wake them after they have fully calmed down and are no longer upset or in distress. During this time, you can then cuddle and comfort your little one and change them if needed.
Keep Them Safe
When you hear or notice that your little one is having a night terror, do a quick environment scan to ensure that they are safe and unable to hurt themselves. You may need to place some pillows on the ground or against the wall, or ensure that there is a rail on the bed to avoid them falling out.
If your child is getting up and walking when in a night terror, I would suggest to ensure that their room is clear from clutter (to avoid them falling over or tripping) and closing their bedroom door to ensure that they aren’t able to roam the house or fall down any stairs.
If even after this, your little one still manages to get out of their room and wonder, ensure you place baby-gates over any stairs or dangerous rooms/areas of the house.
You may also like to re-introduce a video monitor into your little one’s room, so you are able to keep an eye on them.
Screen time (especially when progressing through developmental leaps) can cause your little one’s mind to become overstimulated and wired and can contribute to the onset of night terrors.
If you have begun to notice overnight waking’s or night-terrors, I would suggest to remove all screen time from your little one’s routine, however specifically from within 3-4 hours of bed time.
Having a consistent pre-bed routine can be a great way to help avoid night-terrors. Studies show that little ones who have appropriate wind-down time, baths (or showers) and book reading have a reduced risk of entering into a night terror. If this isn’t something you are currently practicing with your little one, now is a fantastic time to introduce it!
It is also common to see night terrors increase when a little one is overtired, so it is important to ensure that your little one is having quality day time naps.
If you feel you may need further help in creating an age appropriate routine for your little one, our Online Sleep Programs can help!
Breaking The Cycle
For some little ones, night terrors can become something they enter into frequently, even when all other factors have been assessed. While the initial onset of night terrors may have been due to some of the previously mentioned factors, the terrors can become almost a “habit” and as such, they will continue over a longer period of time.
If your child is experiencing this and you have trailed all the above suggestions, you may need to look at trying to break the habit.
When finalising your log, you are likely to find a common time that the night terrors are occurring.
If this is the case, you can look at entering your little one’s room 15-20 minutes before they typically have these episodes and gently wake your little one.
This will help to take your little one out of the deep sleep and avoid them having the opportunity to enter into the night terror. By doing this consistently over the course of 5-7 days, you should see this cycle break.
Typical white, blue or green based night lights can be a common contributor to night-terrors, regardless of how dim they may be. This is because these colour based lights will inhibit your little one’s melatonin at night, which is the sleep hormone released by the brain in response to light sensitivity in the eyes.
Where possible, try to remove any night lights from your little one’s room if you are beginning to see night terrors occur. If this light is a source of comfort for your little one, you may need to have a gradual approach in it’s removal.
If your little one isn’t comfortable sleeping without a night light, you may like to look at swapping the nightlight to a red based light.
Red based night lights emit a much lighter wavelength; which research shows doesn’t inhibit melatonin release. While these won’t improve the quality of your little ones sleep, they also won’t affect its chemical building blocks are a good option for families and little ones who want a night light.
If you are finding that your little one’s night terrors are only getting worse and increasing in frequency, I would definitely suggest to see your GP for further assessment.
They will be able to assess and rule out any physical causes and will be able to refer you to a specialist if needed.