Oct 022012

When Vera was around 9 months old, she had a couple of nighttime tantrums that almost broke me. Vera was sleeping peacefully, an hour or so after bedtime, when suddenly she started to cry and kick and scream. She wouldn’t take a bottle, fought my hugs, and kept throwing herself to the floor. Nothing I tried would soothe her. The screaming and fighting went on for 30 agonizing minutes, 40, 45, until Vera finally settled back into an exhausted sleep and Mama dissolved into tears.

The first time was just weird. After the second, I did what I always do with strange symptoms — turned to Dr. Google. Results suggested she might be experiencing night terrors, but most articles reported that night terrors don’t start before the preschool years. One even insisted they only happen to teenagers.

Three years and a few hundred bouts of night terrors later, let me assure you that night terrors can strike babies and toddlers! Here’s our hard-won knowledge for anyone else out there facing something similar:

What are night terrors? A night terror is a bit like sleepwalking — a person may walk, talk, and open her eyes but is actually sound asleep. In fact, it can be difficult to awaken someone in the middle of a night terror. The “terror” part is because people with night terrors enter fight or flight mode, screaming and crying, fighting imagined threats, and sometimes running away. Most people don’t remember anything about the night terror once it has passed.

That may sound simple, but the actual experience can be horrifying. Vera either cries loudly in her sleep or yells “NOOOOOOOOO.” Sometimes “STOP” or “I DON’T WANT IT,” but usually just “NOOOOOOO.” Sometimes she slides to the floor. Often she just cries and thrashes. If we pick her up for hugs, she arches away or physically fights us. She kicks a lot, and sometimes she nails us hard. As a parent, it’s indescribably difficult to see your little one in trauma but get kicked away when you try to soothe her.

Terminology confusion: Some argue that “sleep terrors” is a better term than “night terrors” because they happen at nap time too. Sleep doctors use “confusional arousal” for Vera-style episodes. I find that term much too mild — her episodes are definitely more “terror” than “confusion.” But true medical “night terrors,” which do strike mostly teenagers, are on a whole other level. Teens suffering true night terrors frequently injure themselves or others during fight-or-flight.

What causes night terrors? No one knows exactly. They’re described as a “neural storm” that happens when a person gets stuck between normal sleep and wake cycles and one part of the brain signals sleep while another signals wake. Night terrors usually happen in the first several hours of sleep, during Stage 4 (deep, non-dreaming) sleep. They are most likely to happen when a child is overtired or sick. Sudden loud noises or other disturbances during the wrong part of sleep (I’m looking at you, yappy dog) can jolt Vera into a night terror. A full bladder or wet diaper are other common triggers. The episodes can hit several times a night for several nights in a row, then disappear completely for weeks or months.

Nightmare or night terror? Nightmares happen during REM sleep and are most frequent in the morning toward the end of a night’s sleep. Kids often wake up afraid, and older kids sometimes remember and describe their dreams. Night terrors happen during deep, non-dream sleep and are most common in the first few hours of a night’s sleep. The child will usually go right back to sleep after a night terror and won’t remember it in the morning.

How to handle an episode? Articles will tell you everything from “talk to him reassuringly and hold him close till it passes” to “don’t talk to him or touch him under any circumstances.” The best advice is usually to watch and be sure your child is safe but otherwise to let the episode run its course without interfering. That is easier said than done, though — most parents are compelled to try and comfort a child who’s so obviously upset. When Vera was younger, we could sometimes pick her up and hug her out of it. With small grumbles, I can usually “shhhh” her and quietly reassure her that we’re there. Now that she’s older, we try a series of questions: “Do you want a blankie? Do you want a teddy? Drink of water? How about hugs?” The first several offers are usually met with “NOOOOOO,” but sometimes we break through to a sad little “yes.” If those tricks don’t work, we just have to walk away. It always stops eventually. In fact, her terrors rarely lasts more than 5 minutes. But those 5 minutes can be very long for a concerned parent with a tragic child.

Are there treatments? Nothing much. Sedative and sleep drugs may work in severe cases. Luckily, most kids outgrow the problem.

Other trivia: The worse place Vera has had night terrors? Small bed and breakfast wasn’t fun (the rooms down the hall woke to middle-of-the-night bloodcurdling screams), but the absolute worst was on an airplane. Twice. Loud, extended screaming and fighting mom and dad, all while scores of judge-y strangers watch? Check and check. (And I’m not the only one — this blogger’s child had a 45 minute episode on a flight.)

Scholars suspect night terrors are the real-life explanation behind some stories of demonic possession.

My biggest worry? That Vera is seeing the things described by night terrors sufferers at this site. Hoping it’s purely a neurological thing and not terrifying visions. Our poor baby!

Do you know anyone who suffers night terrors? Any wisdom to share?

  11 Responses to “Night Terrors in Babies and Toddlers”

  1. Interesting! Our baby has night terrors too… He started very young at just a few weeks old. He would be napping in the living room and then start screaming in fright, we would rush to him to hold his hand and he would calm down and go back to sleep.

    For the first 3 months (while I was still on maternity leave) he probably did it twice a week during his naps and none at night, they would only last a few seconds but he would let out one heck of a scream in terror.

    Since then now that he’s 7 months old, starting at about 5 months he has at most one terror a week at night and none that I know of during the day (none on the weekends when I’m with him and none that his daycare has told me). Some nights it is just like when he was younger, just let out one big scream and got back to sleep, sometimes he just does a little whine maybe two, but once in a blue moon he will have an all out continuous fight/cry/scream and we will have to rush into to pick him up, normally he calms right down when we pick him up and he falls back asleep.

    I have told my doctor a number of times about this (in fact every time I have seen him for his regular checkups) and the first time he said… he’s too young for night terrors and now he tells me it’s nothing to worry about. Thank you for sharing, it’s good to know we aren’t the only ones experiencing this.

    I hope it gets better for your daughter!

    • Wow, that DID start young! Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I agree that it helps everyone to know others are in the same boat. Glad to hear that your little one seems to be mostly growing out of it. Good luck!

  2. Ooof, poor little lamb. I have had them off and on since I was very little. My mom has described me doing the exact same things. :( For me, people trying to wake me up has always made it worse – it’s scarier and adds to my waking visions, so to speak. My mom (and now my husband,) try to be near, but not touch me or wake me.

    I have no memories of them from when I was younger though, so hopefully V will also be blissfully unaware and outgrow it. I only get them on occasion now, and it’s always during times of heavy stress. Hang in there, mama!

    • Wow, Tricia, sorry to hear that you’ve got the night terrors. But thanks for sharing your experience! Hate hearing about the scary visions, even for a grownup. No one should have to go through that. (I definitely do hope that our own girl just outgrows them.)

  3. My nephew suffers from night terrors. He actually has grown out of them for the most part at almost 8. But I can remember staying over my sister’s house when he was little, before having kids, heck before getting married, was even a glimmer in my eye, and I was so confused by the whole thing. It is so hard for the parent to not be able to console the child…especially on no sleep. I hope that she will grow out of them someday, too.

    • Interesting to hear about this from your observer’s point of view. And as much my memory tends to fill our “night terrors plane” with lots of mean, judge-y people, there were actually lots of people who tried to help and offer suggestions on how to make her happy, clear her ears, etc. No one really understood when I told them she was sleepwalking and couldn’t respond to what I said, but at least some people were concerned and tried to help. So glad to hear that your nephew is growing out of his own night terrors!

  4. My 16mo old son is having them now. They started out once every few weeks and have moved on to almost daily at nap time (at preschool). Yesterday was he worst. He slept for about an hour and started screaming bloody murder and it took his teachers 45 min to calm him…all after he woke the entire school from their nap. I am at a loss. I am so afraid they will kick him out of his daycare because he absolutely loves it there…it kills me knowing that he is scared and there is less than NOTHING that i can do for him. My heart breaks.

    • Oh no, poor baby. (And poor worried Mama.) There are a few small things we’ve learned in terms of avoidance that might help your son at naptime. Basically, anything that slightly disturbs sleep, if it happens at the wrong time in the sleep cycle, can kick them into a night terror. So noise from other kids and teachers, maybe lights left on, anything like that might be the culprit at daycare. Maybe they have a separate area where he could nap undisturbed? We also found wet diapers or even the need to pee were often a cause. Not much you can do about that if they’re too young to potty train, but it’s another thing to be aware of. And avoiding overstimulation or overtiredness often helps, but I know that’s also hard to control when they’re at the mercy of the daycare schedule. Most people do find the worst episodes pass in a week or two (at least until next time), but it’s awful while you’re waiting it out. Good luck!!

  5. My little princess just recently started having night terrors and at first I thought it was her throwing a fit and not wanting to go back to sleep, but now I am beyond worried for her. She screams so loud that our whole apartment complex awakes, she throws herself around hysterically and nothing that usually would make her happy and stop crying helps, not even bath time. (She normally goes nuts, in a good way, to take a shower by herself). I can’t do anything to wake her up and her most horrible episode lasted on and off for 4 hours! She would have a night terror lasting around 45 minutes and eventually fall back asleep only to wake 20-30 minutes later for another 45 minutes! It’s completely heart breaking, but very frustrating too. I am 6 months pregnant with our second and she is almost 2. It’s to the point that it’s unbareable. I’ve arranged for her to see her doctor as they are not getting any better, but much much worse.

    • So sorry to hear about your daughter’s troubles. Always so hard for a parent to stand by unable to help when a little one is so unhappy! Hope her doctor is able to provide guidance. And we have found that things get a little better with time — I suspect our daughter’s biggest trigger (not only trigger, but biggest) was a full bladder or wet diaper, so the terrors have gotten much fewer as her bladder control has grown. Sending many good wishes your way, for the health of both daughter and new baby, and for your ability to juggle it all!

  6. A solution that I have used with my grandchild to help alleviate nightmares is guided imagery at bedtime. One story she likes to hear over and over is Rabbit Dreams by Melissa Hasan (http://dream-and-dream.com/). It is a beautifully illustrated story to help calm and focus the mind on a peaceful sleep.

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