The Terrifying Truth About Night Horrors

Do you know what it is like to stand near your child but helplessly separated while they scream in apparent horror at night? I do. I’ve been doing it almost every night for months. It was not necessary.

My six-year-old son is one of many children who have experienced night terrors. Like most of these children, he has a relative who experienced night terrors – I had them as a child. Night terrors are not bad dreams or nightmares. As terrible as they are, nightmares dissolve with light and the comforting presence of a caring parent. Children usually experience nightmares late at night and can usually remember certain details. These dreams can potentially be prevented by avoiding certain pictures, stories, or foods. This is an inconvenience, not a problem. Night terrors are a different animal.

Your child will not wake up because of – or during – a nighttime horror, although their eyes may be wide open. You can’t calm, calm, or calm a child down. Children usually experience night terrors early at night and have no memory of specific details. Usual medical advice suggests that you stand by to watch your child suffer, listen to them scream, and only stop their beatings if it could cause physical harm. In essence, your parenting style should be extremely accessible at the exact time that you are emotionally driven to be fully active. And while I felt tormented by it, I was tormented even more by the secret belief that my son has subconsciously internalized that he was being abandoned in those moments.

And I mean the unconscious internalization of the event, because experts believe that children will not remember night terrors and therefore do not have permanent scars. In fact, my memory of the night horror is not the event but the waking up to find my parents and / or siblings working to calm me down. But we live in a time when we are learning that grandmother’s experiences through epigenetics can influence our response to the world. I worry that these moments my son experienced could have a lasting effect.

These moments, as we have now learned, happen within the first few hours of sleep, when individuals wake up from slow sleep (i.e., deep, non-REM sleep) and into lighter REM sleep. Night terrors seem to be more common in children who are overtired, sick, or stressed, or in children who are taking new medication, or in children who are away from home. In all cases, they present themselves as an unresponsive, frightened child.

Since most children do not experience it, we must view night terrors as an extreme result of the cultural practice of nocturnal separation.

Children tend to outgrow the night terrors, and only a small percentage experience them into adolescence. However, some children experience it so frequently that professionals have suggested intervention. A common treatment for recurring night terrors is the prescription of antidepressants. A new approach to treatment is Planned Awakening, in which children are “stimulated” around the time they would switch between sleeping states, thereby interrupting the path to night terrors. Since my son was scared for months 5-6 nights a week, we tried the latter strategy.

My wife and I put my son to bed, waited until he fell asleep, then stood in the hallway after 50 minutes and triggered a vibration device inserted between the mattress and the box spring. This form of sleep rarely worked. One night when I joked that the sleep was working better for us, I had an epic face transplant moment: my son did not suffer from abnormal sleep patterns.

He suffered from an unnatural sleep situation. I should have known better! I teach about the health consequences of living in evolutionarily new environments. When in our evolutionary history would it have made sense for young children to sleep apart from their parents? If it makes evolutionary sense, then why are we essentially the only primates who do this? And if it doesn’t make sense, why not? I will posit an answer – sleeping apart from your parents was dangerous. In fact, being separated from family in the dark is extremely dangerous. It wasn’t long ago humans were predators and prey.

We spend all day keeping an eye on our children and seldom let them out of sight. Then at the end of the day we separate her from the family, take her to a dark and quiet room, and leave her. From an evolutionary point of view, they should be afraid. We expect more horror from children who are stressed or displaced by their families. I just don’t think we realized that our culture makes us stress and drive our children away every night.

The next night we started sleeping with my son. We didn’t have to stay all night, but found that he fell asleep earlier than before. He also reached out to us after sleeping for about an hour, by which time he would have transitioned into lighter REM sleep. At this point, if whoever was with him was awake, my wife or I could return to our bedroom. I a lot. His fear stopped, and his younger brother – who has only known co-sleeping – has never seen one before.

This personal anecdote led me to believe that novel cultural practices are causing night terrors to our children. If this is correct, we must view night terrors as an extreme result of the cultural practice of nocturnal separation, as most children do not experience it.

But if this is an extreme result, what lesser results are we missing out on? I believe that sleeping with children (1+ old) will likely reduce the prevalence of night terrors – and potential “lesser consequences” – by restoring an evolutionarily beneficial method of night parenting.

Photo credit: mattress bed pillow sleep relax by congerdesign. Public domain via Pixabay.

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