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?