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How to keep kids' night terrors at bay so the family can sleep

Melissa Chapman and her brood of three live in the urban concrete jungle of NYC. She writes Kids in the City Kids in the City a weekly column and blog for the Staten Island Advance, contributes to SheKnows, Time Out NY Kids Time Out N...

Kids aren't the only ones terrified by night terrors — what parents need to know

The first time your child has a night terror, you'll know — it's much different than your run-of-the-mill nightmare. Even worse, night terrors are totally unpredictable and more likely to affect small children.

It may help you to keep your bearings in the face of midnight hysteria if you know what to look for and how to react when your child wakes inconsolable in the middle of the night.

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Bradi Nathan, a New Jersey mom and co-founder of MyWorkButterfly.com, said her son's night terrors began a few years back and now appear at the onset of an illness. Ms. Nathan admits there have been many nights that she felt utterly helpless as her son grasped onto her for dear life yelling, "Save me."

"The first terror arrived late at night as my husband and I were in deep REM mode! It was if Jack was screaming to be saved by a burglar... like a scene out of a sci-fi movie," says Nathan.

"His screams intensified, eyes rolled back, he was thrusting his tongue, yet he was sleeping the whole time. We immediately called the pediatrician who told us not to wake him, not to touch him, and to repeatedly say, it's okay, you are safe mommy is here. The notion is that if a child is woken out of a night terror then they will be afraid to fall back to sleep and often slip right back into in."

Night terrors or nightmares?

According to Dr. Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist specializing in child development and parenting at AhaParenting.com, nightmares are upsetting dreams that happen during REM (dream) sleep. Night terrors occur during Stage 4 Deep Sleep, or during the transition from Stage 4 to REM Sleep. In other words, during a night terror, the person is actually asleep — according to his brain waves — even if his eyes are open! In fact, most of the time the person has no recollection of them.

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The cause of night terrors

"Night terrors can occur at any age, but small children seem to suffer from them most frequently. In fact, up to 15 percent of kids reportedly experience at least one night terror, "says Dr. Markham. "Scientists think night terrors may be caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system, which regulates brain activity. Most children outgrow them, probably as their brains mature, although some adults do report having night terrors when under stress. This suggests that stress could also trigger night terrors in little ones."

Dr. Markham notes that Stanford researchers have hypothesized that there is a link between childhood sleep apnea and night terrors, so it's always a good idea to have your pediatrician check your child for sleep apnea. Sleep apnea can make it difficult for children to get enough rest, and there are indications that over-tiredness as well as stress can trigger night terrors in people who are prone to them.

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