Night terrors (sleep terrors).
Sounds like a scary thing. Just the thought of it makes you cringe.
If your child suffers from night terrors, then you know what I mean.
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You are woken from sleep (or startled while watching tv) with screams of terror. So you rush into your child’s room to find them screaming, thrashing about, and still asleep.
You try to comfort her, and it only makes things worse. So you ride it out until she calms down, trying to keep her from hurting herself.
If you’ve been through this scenario before, and are tired of watching your kid suffer through them, then I have a simple trick that may help stop them or make them shorter. This might work best for infrequent, unpredictable night terrors. I list other alternatives at the end of this post for those with very frequent night terrors.
Doctors say that night terrors are not harmful to the child or a cause for concern and most kids will outgrow them by the time they are a teen.
But they don’t have to watch their child fight and thrash about like someone is trying to kill them. And try to hold their child or move them to a safe place so they don’t fall off the bed, hit their head on the walls, or worse, fall down the stairs if they are a mover or sleepwalker, too.
My son has fought sleep since day 1! He was never a good sleeper, hated bedtime and naps. It could take 2 hours or more to get him to sleep. He has always been a very active kid and just hates to sit still, let alone sleep. And he did NOT sleep through the night until he was 2! So, needless to say, he would not win any sleeping awards. But he is slowly, but surely, getting better.
My son has had a night terror at least 3-4 times a year since he was about 6 months old. I know some kids may have them more often and maybe even every night. Either way, they are awful! When your kids are in the middle of one, you can feel completely helpless, because NOTHING seems to help them. And what is worse for us?
They seem to last FOREVER!
It may only be 15 to 20 minutes, but watching our kids cry and thrash around for what seems like an eternity, is almost like torture and it breaks our hearts. Sometimes it may even seem like they are “possessed”.
This is what my son acted like when he was 18 months old. He would stand in his doorway and scream the same word or phrase over and over again and sometimes with a deeper voice, all with his eyes closed. Or he would thrash around on his bed like he was fighting something off.
Night terrors are not what any parent wants to experience. It’s a scary thing to watch your kid go through.
Well, out of pure desperation during one of my son’s night terrors, I discovered a trick that has worked every time to get him to come out of the night terror, in a calm manner, in a matter of minutes. So I’m here to share that with you. I hope that it helps you and your child.
However, I am not a medical professional, so this is my experience, and I cannot guarantee it will work for your kid. But it may be worth it to give it a try when your kid is having a night terror. Because we do not want to see our kids hurting any longer than we have to.
Differences Between a Nightmare and a Night Terror
Most people experience nightmares at some point in their lives, and they are caused by a number of factors including watching scary movies, traumatic experience, sugar or caffeine before bed, fears, and the list goes on.
Nightmares are normal.
They usually occur during the dream phase of sleep (REM), which occurs around 90 minutes after going to sleep. We will cycle in and out of the different sleep stages throughout the night. We usually awaken from a nightmare and can sometimes remember what it was about. They can occur at any age.
Night terrors are NOT as common and usually occur within an hour of going to sleep. This is the deepest sleep phase and we do not dream. They usually happen when switching from one sleep phase to the next. They can last 10 to 20 minutes or more, and the kid is usually still asleep. Eyes can be open or closed, but they are not seeing what is in front of them. No matter what you do, nothing seems to comfort them. So it is usually recommended to wait it out. When they wake up, there is usually no recollection of what happened or what caused them to be scared. As with nightmares, night terrors can occur at any age. They are hereditary, and often run in families.
My husband used to sleepwalk from time to time as a young kid and is a horrible sleeper; if he wakes up in the middle of the night, it can take him hours to go back to sleep. So I guess there is some truth to this being hereditary.
According to kidshealth.org, night terrors are more common in boys and generally occur in kids between 4 and 12 years old, but have been reported in toddlers.
Here Is How Our Typical Scenario Plays Out
Here is how it usually goes, at least with my son: I am watching TV or reading a book and relaxing after putting my son to bed for the night, or I am already sleeping soundly in bed. What I am doing usually depends on what time he went to sleep, which unfortunately for me is usually between 830 and 930, and lately even later.
Then I hear a scream or cry that startles or awakens me and I race to his room to see what is wrong.
But odds are, since I have experienced this before, I already know what I will find when I go in his room. As I’m sure you have come to distinguish your child’s night terror cries from other cries of being scared or hungry, especially when it occurs around the same time each night.
He is sitting upright and crying and calling out words that I guess describe what he is seeing or experiencing in the moment (e.g. “Don’t want it, or “no mommy/daddy” and sometimes it sounds like something from one of the cartoons he watches), except his eyes are closed.
So, I know right then and there, that this is NOT a typical nightmare. He’s in the middle of a night terror, does not realize that he isn’t awake and thinks whatever is happening to him is real.
One thing I do not do when I go in his room is turn on the light. I don’t want to startle him more and it makes it easier for him to go back to sleep when he is ready to do so. We have 2 or 3 night lights in his room and I have really good night vision, so turning on the light makes it worse for me, too.
So, the first thing I always try to do, which under normal circumstances works, is to get him out of bed, wrap my arms around him and hold him, give him a hug and tell him everything is okay. That is the most natural thing in the world to do when your child is hurt or scared.
Trying to comfort your child often makes night terrors worse, and he will fight you and thrash around.
The first one my son had when he was about 6 months old, was probably one of the scariest. I had no idea why he was crying and trying to squirm out of my arms. Usually he would snuggle up to me and hold my ponytail, and fall back asleep. That night he acted like my touch was poison and he wanted out. But, I waited it out, while still holding him and singing soft lullabies. He eventually got quiet and fell back asleep, after what seemed like 30 minutes or more. I may have breastfed him, too, but I don’t remember.
The second time my son had a night terror, he was around 1. I did the same thing I did at 6 months and tried to hold and comfort him. I still didn’t know what was causing him to act like this. I didn’t know if it was gas or upset stomach, which could also cause him to squirm and be restless, but it usually wasn’t associated with screaming. Again, he responded in the same way, except now he was bigger, so it was harder to hold him still. He finally calmed down and fell back asleep.
The third time it happened, I knew something was up. This was NOT normal behavior at night. This was NOT a nightmare. I picked him up and again tried to hold him. But now he was 18 months and very strong! He kept fighting me and crying and I did not know what to do. My husband was working 3rd shift that night, so it was just me and my son.
I lost track of how long the night terror lasted. He seemed like he was screaming at me and sometimes it looked like his eyes were open. After what seemed like 20 to 30 minutes, I finally sat him down on the floor. He was crying for me, but didn’t want me to touch him.
There he was, so small, standing in his doorway screaming at me in a deep voice. Well, at this point I was starting to fear that he was possessed, because that was the only word that could describe what I was seeing. And I was crying because I didn’t know what to do to help him.
The Tool to Stop Night Terrors Is in Your Pocket
So out of pure desperation, I went in my room to get the one thing that most people keep in their pockets at all times….my smartphone.
I don’t know what compelled me to do it, but the thought crossed my mind that I needed to see if I could get him to connect with the real world and wake up.
So I opened my amazon prime app and turned on Bubble Guppies (which was his favorite cartoon at the time). I turned the volume down low, but had it just loud enough that he could hear it.
You know what happened next?
Within about 30 seconds to a minute, he opened his eyes, focused on me and stopped crying. I felt so relieved! I wrapped my arms around him, picked him up and rocked him for a few minutes. He was back to sleep within a minute or two and slept the rest of the night.
By now, I was starting to make connections to why the night terrors were occurring.
The 3 main culprits for night terrors
- Too much sugar too close to bedtime, or caffeine (with older kids)
-either from yogurt, cereal, very sweet fruit, etc.
-This is also a common cause of nightmares
- Being overtired
-usually because he didn’t take a nap and had a busy day
- If we were in a new location or environment
-like on vacation or at a friend’s house for the first time
So these are 3 things to look out for and consider to help stop night terrors all together if your kid has had or is prone to them.
Recent Night Terror EpisodesThe most recent night terrors were a combination of the last two or even all three.
In May, he had a night terror on the first night of vacation at the beach. He was in a new environment (a condo we were sharing with my mom and step-dad), hadn’t slept much on the drive there, and played hard all afternoon on the beach. So of course, he was too excited to sleep. So it took a while for him to wind down and fall asleep, after many trips out of bed.
This same thing actually happened last year on vacation at the beach, too. So you’d think I would be prepared for it.
But when he did finally fall asleep, he had a night terror within about an hour of bedtime. This time I tried my phone right away and put on his favorite cartoon (which was now Thomas and Friends). I sat next to him, but didn’t hold him this time. I had the screen facing down, so he just heard the songs, and he opened his eyes within 1-2 minutes. He wanted to watch more cartoons when he woke up, so I let him hold the phone, but he had passed out after a minute and was sound asleep. He slept through the night all week since he was so tired, but luckily didn’t have any more night terrors.
The most recent night terror was in July, when his buddy from daycare spent the day with him for the first time. We were at our house, but it was a new situation from him. And of course he was too excited to nap that day. Even though he was exhausted from busy day, he still fought sleep and didn’t fall asleep until after 930 PM, which is an hour later than his bedtime. Within 30 minutes, he was crying.
Knowing now what to expect, I grabbed my phone and headed upstairs.
There he was sitting up in his bed crying and mumbling, eyes still closed. I tried holding him for a minute just to see if he would wake up, thinking maybe it could still be a nightmare. But he thrashed around in my arms, so I put him back down on his bed. I turned the phone on and played a song from Trolls (which was one of his current favorite movies).
This time it didn’t seem to work as easily, so I tried another song (from Frozen). He opened his eyes for a few seconds, but continued to cry. Although this time he said “I don’t want to watch that, Mommy”. So, I knew he was hearing me.
So, I decided I would give it one more try before I gave up. I put on some monster truck cartoon that he likes, and within a few seconds, he finally opened his eyes. I held him for a minute and he drifted back to sleep.
I’m not sure why I had to go through so many songs this time, but it still worked, and his night terror was over in about 5 minutes or less. He’s 3 now, so it may work better with young kids. And maybe, he is finally outgrowing his night terrors. I sure hope so!
Another option instead of cartoons, especially when dealing with young kids or babies, could be playing your their favorite song, or a song that he or she would easily recognize. It should work the same way to help your kid recognize the real world versus the dream world and wake up.
Because during a night terror, Mommy and Daddy’s voices do NOT seem to be comforting.
Other Options or Alternatives to this Trick
Again, I am not a medical professional. Most professionals would likely say to wait out the night terror and hope your kid falls back to sleep after it’s over. But since I’m not the type to watch him go through that for up to 30 minutes, I came up with a solution that works (for my son anyway).
So this is my experience, and I cannot guarantee it will work for your kid. But it may be worth it to give it a try when your kid is having a night terror. Because we do not want to see our kids hurting any longer than we have to.
This trick has worked for me every time that I’ve tried it. However, each kid is different and may respond differently to certain stimuli.
If the night terrors last less than 5 minutes, it may not be worth trying in case it disturbs the kid, especially if they usually go right back to sleep.
I do not know if this will work, or if you should try it, if your kid has night terrors every night. That would be up to a doctor or professional sleep specialist to decide.
Options for frequent night terrors
There is new research out there now on a treatment called “scheduled awaking therapy”, which has been shown to cure night terrors 90% of the time (www.nightterrors.org). It involves waking up your kid about 15-30 minutes before the night terror usually occurs, which helps them move into the next sleep phase. Follow the link to find out more about that.
Or you can gently disturb your kid’s sleep by touching or rubbing their arms, head, or back for a few seconds to get them to roll over and go into the next sleep cycle.
There is also a product called Lully Sleep Guardian 2, which claims to stop night terrors (80%) and gets good reviews. You place this product under the mattress, and it vibrates at a preset time to gently disrupt your kid’s sleep, without waking them up. I would try this product if my son had more than just a few night terrors a year. His are unpredictable now, so I do not know if this would work, but it seems like an affordable option.
So there you have it. Give it a try during your kid’s next night terror. Let me know if it helped or if it actually caused problems.
I know this technique is unconventional and possibly controversial, but it has worked for my son.
If you have any questions about this technique, or others alternatives that I mentioned, just leave a comment below. I would love to help you and your kid get better sleep.
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