Things that go bump in the night -managing sleep terrors

If only night terrors were this calm


As the youngest of four children Ollie was a great sleeper; after all he needed to fit in and be easygoing in such a big family.

But everything changed when he began having violent night terrors at the age of four.

The first time it happened he suddenly jumped out of bed about an hour after he had fallen asleep and started screaming “Mummy, Mummy” in terror as though something horrifying was chasing him.

I tried to put my arms around him, but he pushed me away, not recognising who I was. I didn’t know what to do; it was dreadful to see him so frightened and not be able to comfort him.

He had his eyes open, but it was as if he was trapped in a different world.

He was quivering with fear and sweating as he ran in circles around the lounge room. When I did get close to him I could feel his heart pounding frantically in his chest.

After about ten minutes he began to calm down, so I carefully steered him back to bed where he quickly fell asleep again.

The next morning Ollie didn’t remember anything about the incident, but I was worried and anxious, wondering what on earth had happened.

I’d heard about night terrors from other mums whose children had had them, but I had never seen one and it was much scarier than I had imagined. In fact it seemed it was much worse for me than Ollie!

But I did some reading and soon discovered that although night terrors are frightening to watch, they are a fairly normal part of childhood for about five per cent of kids.

According to Victoria’s Royal Children’s Hospital, night terrors are most common in the ages between 18 months to six years old, although they can continue into adolescence, and in rare cases, into adulthood.

According to the hospital, a night terror will usually happen in the first few hours after a child has fallen asleep, and is different from a nightmare.

In a night terror the child is caught between wake and sleep; they will move around, have their eyes open, talk and appear to be awake, though their eyes will often be glassy and they won’t be fully aware of the people around them. Often a night terror begins with a terrifying scream, then the child may thrash around in bed, or jump up and run around their room or the house, as Ollie did.

Unlike nightmares, night terrors happen during non-dream sleep, so children won’t remember them the next day.

Most night terrors will last from five to 20 minutes, and it seems that boys are slightly more likely to have them than girls. Interestingly, having one child in your family who has night terrors doesn’t mean subsequent children will experience them.

But what I most wanted to know was what caused the night terror to happen in the first place; or in other words, being a typical mum, I wanted to know whether I had unknowingly done anything to trigger it.

It was a relief to find out that there are no known external causes for night terrors, and that better yet, the sleep disorder is not linked to any psychological problems. It would be easy to believe when you see your child so distressed and confused that they have a mental illness, but night terrors have a physical rather than mental cause according to paediatric sleep consultant, Dr Chris Seton, from the Children’s Hospital at Westmead.

“When we do sleep studies of children experiencing a night terror we can see the electrical activity in the brain that triggers motor activity,” he said.

“One of the biggest problems for parents and children is if they are referred to psychologists and psychiatrists for treatment of night terrors, when it is clearly not a psychological problem.”

He said pushing a child to identify a non-existent psychological cause could damage their self-esteem and lead to parents feeling unnecessary guilt.

If a child is experiencing anxiety that leads to disrupted sleep, this overtiredness can trigger a night terror – so dealing with any stress in their lives will be helpful, but the anxiety itself will not cause the sleep disorder.

And even though they look traumatic, night terrors can do no psychological damage to the child.

Night terrors have a very strong genetic link. Almost all children who experience night terrors will have one parent who sleep walks or talks, or had night terrors as a child.

Dr Seton said night terrors are a type of parasomnia; a medical category that also includes sleepwalking, talking, bed wetting, head banging and teeth grinding.

So what can parents do to manage their child’s night terrors?

The best advice seems to be to relax. To understand that although it looks terrifying, a night terror is just another stage of childhood. And as much as it is stressful for you and the rest of the family, your child will be happily oblivious to the experience the next day.

Other than that, maintaining a regular bedtime routine, and ensuring your child doesn’t become sleep deprived is important.

Night terrors can sometimes be triggered by fever, so it is best to manage any illness carefully.

See our information box for how to deal with a child experiencing a night terror.

If you have any concerns about your child’s night terrors a visit to a GP can be a good starting point. Your doctor can give you a referral to a sleep clinic if you would like further treatment for your child.

Happily for us, Ollie grew out of the problem, now at ten he still talks in his sleep most nights and occasionally sleep walks, but the terrors are thankfully a thing of the past.

Night Terror Basics

They are not a sign of psychological problems.

In more than 90 per cent of cases they will have a genetic link.

Most children will grow out of them by the end of primary school.

They are fairly common, affecting five per cent of kids.


Dealing with a child having a night terror

She jumps out of bed screaming, eyes open, flapping her hands frantically and yelling for help. She can’t see you and screams louder when you try to touch her. What should you do?

Do not try to wake her, it will only intensify the experience.

Avoid touching her, other than to ensure she is safe.

Try to steer her gently back to bed, talking as little as possible. If she is still in bed, stay in the room to make she is okay, but don’t talk or interact. The episode will subside and she will go back to sleep.

Sleep clinic consultants can advise parents on a planned-waking program whereby they keep a diary of their child’s night terrors and wake them fully just before the expected time of the episode. This treatment is successful in a small percentage of children, but should be done in conjunction with a sleep consultant.

In one-in-30 cases medication will be required to prevent frequent night terrors. This should only be prescribed following assessment at a sleep clinic.

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4 Responses to Things that go bump in the night -managing sleep terrors

  1. I know how you feel, Michelle. My daughter, Lei Lei had night terrors when she was young and sleep walked until she was about twelve. My greatest fear was not the terrors but the sleepwalking. I was afraid that she would walk out of the house or worst still, have an episode while she was away on school camp. Luckily nothing eventuated and she has grown out of it. Stress did seem to have a lot to do with the sleep walking and the terrors. I noticed that they increased before a ballet concert or other performance. I hope Ollie grows out of it soon.

  2. Thanks Gabrielle, I’m still worried about my own sleepwalking! We recently moved into a new house with a big, winding staircase and I keep a light on every night in case I (or one of the kids) go wandering in the night and fall down!
    PS: You’re my first official comment-maker (I’m not sure that’s even correct grammar?) which is extremely exciting. Thank you – I should send you a prize. A signed copy of one of my books maybe? You choose which title grabs you most and let me know.
    Michelle

  3. Ooh, are you serious? Lucky me. I usually never win anything. I’d love a copy of ‘Chanel Sweethearts’ please.
    Gabrielle

  4. My pleasure Gabrielle, if you send me a direct message on twitter with your postal address I’ll send it out to you. Thanks, Michelle

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