- According to the Mayo Clinic,% 2C sleep horrors are relatively rare
- Parents should keep a sleep diary highlighting the key elements of a night horror
- There is not much that can be done for a child in this state. You just have to wait
- Parents can help by trying to avoid some common triggers such as stress and fatigue
Parents hope that their children only have sweet dreams, but many of us have heard the sad screams that signal a nightmare. These disturbances are usually alleviated with a few hugs, kisses, and confirmation that there isn’t a monster under the bed – along with perhaps cuddling with mom or dad for the rest of the night.
But what if your son or daughter is terrified of the night? They are similar to nightmares, but they are much more intense and scary. During a nighttime terror that can last anywhere from 30 seconds to 30 minutes, children can suddenly sit up in bed, scream, and thrash about. You may also sweat, breathe heavily, and have a racing pulse. What is even more annoying is that your child does not react to any comfort; While it may seem like he or she is awake, most little ones won’t even realize you’re there.
Sleep scares are relatively rare, according to the Mayo Clinic, occurring in a small percentage of children, usually between the ages of 4 and 12. Doctors don’t know the cause, but there is a strong genetic link.
The good news: Night terrors usually go away by the time children reach puberty. Here is some advice from three local experts.
DR. Rehema Latif
Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist, New York-Presbyterian / Lawrence Hospital, Bronxville
Don’t worry: night terrors are not indicative of a mental illness or disorder. Rather, it is a disturbing sleep disorder – called parasomnia – that involves partial arousal from deep non-REM sleep. This is why children seem to be in limbo: not completely awake, but not completely asleep.
“For some reason something happens in this sleep state. There is an imbalance.”
And while this is difficult for parents to hear, there isn’t much that can be done for a child in this state. You have to wait and see.
“Leave them alone, but make sure they’re safe … make sure they don’t start running or hitting themselves.”
There is no real treatment for night terrors, but Latif suggests a way to possibly forestall an event. If night terrors occur around the same time each night, gently wake your child about 15 minutes before an expected episode – then let them fall back to sleep. Hopefully this will adjust the sleep pattern enough to prevent this from happening.
But if one does take place, keep in mind that it will eventually pass. And unlike a nightmare, the child will not remember anything the next day.
“Sleep horrors are a fear for the parents, not so much for the child.”
DR. Sandhya Katz
Pediatric Emergency Doctor, Nyack Hospital
The most important thing parents should know is not to physically hold back – or shake them awake – a child, as this could make them more exciting or confused.
“The desire to take pain and suffering away from your child is universal. It is therefore very difficult to tell parents that it is best to hold back and do nothing.”
Parents can help by trying to avoid some common triggers, such as stress and fatigue. Katz notes that children should have regular sleep patterns and familiar, relaxing bedtime. Even so, she adds, “If your child has night terrors, don’t think that you have failed.”
Of course, it can be frustrating to hear that there is no cure for something that is obviously causing so much suffering.
“Parents always hope to find the cause of something and fix it. But most of the time there is only the certainty that they will grow from it.”
Dr. Jay Selman
Pediatric Neurologist at Blythedale Children’s Hospital, Valhalla
Selman agrees that the best medicine is to just leave a night terrified child alone. However, it is certainly something that a pediatrician should be brought to the attention of in order to identify possible contributing factors.
“Usually it’s not psychological, but the pediatrician should check family life, school life if something is going on in the neighborhood. There could be aggravating factors, but children have these with or without stress.”
In addition, parents should keep a sleep diary that records the essential elements of a night horror: the date, time and duration of the night horror. A video of an episode can also provide valuable information. “You can begin to see patterns that will help the pediatrician.”
But mostly, he says, the advice will be: “Let it ride.”