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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

13 tips for handling night terrors

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

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 may 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. Often little ones need to be asleep by 7 p.m.; 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.

5. Do adopt a comforting bedtime ritual that includes bath, snuggling & reading, and follow it each night, making sure that your child has an hour of "wind-down" that is soothing. No music, TV, loudness, wildness, or anything particularly arousing, and no food, since digestion seems to be the source of night terrors for some people. Get more tips here on developing a bedtime ritual for kids.

6. Be aware that fevers can trigger night terrors in those who are prone.

7. Do make sure that your child is not being accidentally awakened. There is some evidence that night terrors result from being awakened during Stage 4 sleep (if there is already a predisposition). If traffic or TV or telephone noises intrude on his sleep, they could be awakening him. You might invest in a white noise machine as a precaution.

8. Don't try to force your child to wake up from a night terror. That leaves a person extremely disoriented, sometimes to the point of temporary amnesia.

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9. Keep your little one sleeping in a crib until she outgrows her night terrors, if possible. If she has already graduated from a crib, be aware that she could easily leap out of bed during a night terror. Move anything she could trip on out of the way, be sure windows are closed and have a window guard, and use a baby gate to be sure she doesn't run out of her room and fall down the stairs.

10. Don't let your child get over-heated while he sleeps. Particularly, avoid footed pajamas. Many parents report that their child is more likely to have night terrors when overheated.

11. If your child has allergies or a cold and her tonsils are inflamed, it can make it harder to breathe, which may trigger night terrors. Ask your doctor about medicine that may help with the allergy symptoms. Some researchers report that removing the tonsils and adenoids can immediately cure night terrors in cases where they were regularly swollen and the child was having a hard time breathing at night.

12. Many parents have reported a complete cure with the radical approach of putting the child's feet into cool (not cold) water during an episode, although some parents report that the night terrors later returned.

13. I hate to wake kids for any reason, but there is evidence that you can help your child reset his arousal cycle by waking him gently 15 minutes before the night terrors usually occur. If you can see a pattern, and the night terrors are frequent, it might be worth it. If you do this for three to five days, it will hopefully interrupt the arousal cycle and prevent the night terrors from recurring.

"My advice to other parents is to try to stay calm and to reassure your child through a soft voice that it's OK, Mommy is here. Do not try to wake your child or to jar him in any way," says Nathan. "This will just exaggerate the episode. And, ride it out. Also, don't recount the happening the next day with your child; very often they will not even be aware of what has occurred. I have been told by my pediatrician that he will grow out of it. He's 9, and I'm still waiting!"

Originally published Jan. 2010. Updated July 2016.

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