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13 Tips for handling night terrors in kids

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...

Helping kids sleep when they have night terrors

Do you know the difference between a night terror and a nighmare? How do you stop your child from having night terrors? Usually affecting small children, experts and parents share the cause of night terrors and tips to ease you and your child's mind during these often scary nocturnal events.

It usually starts at 12 midnight. Both my husband and I are awakened from our deep slumbers to the sounds of high pitched shrieks and garbled speech. This is usually followed by a thud as our son jumps out of his bed and begins his nightly pacing between our bedroom and his in a state of incoherent confusion.

Initially, we thought he was simply experiencing run-of the mill nightmares, however, the frequency of each episode seemed to intensify and our inability to help him snap out of it had us and his pediatrician convinced he was experiencing night terrors.

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.

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.

13 Tips for handling night terrors

Dr. Markham offers these tips for parents:

1. Do try to keep calm yourself. It is likely that your child is not remembering these incidents and is not being traumatized by them. That said, of course you want to offer her whatever comfort you can, and keep her safe. While she will probably seem inconsolable, adults who suffer from night terrors say that they have been comforted by the calm, reassuring voices of those they love. And of course, if she'll let you hug her, then do so.

2. Do try to minimize stress in his life for now. No toilet training or other big developmental challenges if you can help it until he gets out of this phase. Be sure he is not exposed to parental loud voices or other emotional stressors. Use "positive discipline" as opposed to spankings, yelling, timeouts or other stressful discipline. Minimize schedule changes and nights away from home. Get tips here on helping kids manage stress.

3. Eliminate TV. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids younger than 24 months should not watch TV because it negatively impacts brain development, and TV has also been shown to be stressful for little ones, who think the conflicts dramatized on the screen are real.

4. Don't allow your little one to get over-tired, which may make her more susceptible to night terrors. Be sure she has a regular bedtime routine and is getting sufficient sleep. One way to insure that is to move her bedtime a bit earlier each night. Often little ones need to be asleep by 7pm; when they stay up later they have to summon adrenaline and other arousal hormones to keep it together. Moving to an earlier bedtime not only helps them fall asleep more easily at night, but also lessens the possibility of over-arousal.

Next page: 9 more tips for handling night terrors >>

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