If your toddler has ever had a nightmare, then you know how scary it can be for him. But if, like Maggie C.'s 17-month-old son, he's "thrashing around" with "no regard for what's around him," then you're dealing with something that can be quite scary for you: night terrors.
Are Night Terrors Different From Nightmares?
A sleep disruption that leaves your child inconsolable — and perhaps even unresponsive for a time — a night terror is different from a bad dream. According to KidsHealth, common signs of a night terror are:
- Your child wakes up screaming two to three hours after going to sleep
- Breathing and heartbeat are rapid, and your child might be sweating profusely
- Your child may thrash uncontrollably in bed
While almost everyone has the occasional nightmare, night terrors are fairly rare, occurring in only 3 to 6 percent of children, and usually over a brief period of time. They're caused by the overarousal of the central nervous system (CNS), perhaps primarily because it is still maturing. Translation: your child took in a lot of new or intense experiences during the day and is struggling to make sense of them while she sleeps.
There is anecdotal evidence that night terrors might also have a genetic component. Circle of Moms members Laura R. and Alysa H., both of whom have daughters who get night terrors, had them as kids themselves. Laura refers to her own as "panic attacks in my sleep," and Alysa says she had them so bad as a child that it took her mother years before she understood that she had to stand back and let it happen.
Since night terrors happen during the deep, non-REM phase of sleep, your child will appear awake but likely be unresponsive, even to comfort. That's why parents often feel at a loss for how to help, and may even be terrified themselves.
How You Can Help
The most important thing is to stay as calm as possible and make sure your child doesn't get injured. Night terrors usually last between 10 and 30 minutes, so stay with your child until he or she has fully come out of the state and is communicative again. Then offer comfort as you would after a simple nightmare.
Many children have night terrors when they are overtired. Try to stick to a bedtime routine that your child enjoys. This could possibly prevent recurrences, or at least reduce the duration of an episode.
Circle of Moms member Marne G. says that change or trauma triggers her daughter's night terrors and that it didn't help to hold her. She says, in fact, that holding your baby can make the thrashing worse. Wait it out, and the terror will eventually subside on its own.
The good news is that your baby won't remember the experience. Nightmares can often be recalled, but night terrors cannot. And if your child gets them, take heart: kids usually grow out of them by the time they are 5 or 6 years old.