7 Ways We Cope With Our ‘Night Terror’ Kid

Disclaimer: please speak to a physician if you are concerned with your own child’s health/wellness. This post is not intended as medical advice.

Meet Emily.

She is almost four years old. Initially shy, and then super silly. Stubborn. Empathetic. The most beautiful ballerina you’ll ever see, always twirling around the room. Tutus everywhere.

She still naps, up to 2hrs each day. And even still, can frequently be seen yawning or curled up in a ball on the couch with sleepy eyes. Or she’ll sometimes whine, “I’m still tiiiiiiiiireddddddd.”

She is a night terror kid.

Night or sleep terrors are one of two common parasomnias that affect children, the other being sleepwalking. Parasomnias are described as complex behaviours that occur during partial arousals from deep sleep. (JAMA 2015)

From research and personal experience, during a night terror a child will often cry, scream, kick, thrash around, have a racing heart, sweat, and often have a glassy-eyed look. They usually won’t respond to a parent, or are slow to respond and/or confused. They are not nightmares, are not caused by bad dreams, and the child won’t remember the episode in the morning.

Emily has done all of the above and more. She has thrown herself onto her bed repeatedly, kicked, hit.. Sometimes she’ll cry out and then just lay there, eyes wide open, snapping her jaw open and closed in a seizure-like manner. We have found her in strange places in her room, talking to the wall. She will often wander into our room, confused and mumbling. Once, before I had done any research, I was trying to hold and rock her during a more severe night terror. She had been hitting herself on her bed and then once I held her, she was hitting and kicking me. We were both crying and then her little baby sister in the room next door started crying and I thought to myself,

Why didn’t anyone warn me about this?

So, here are 7 of the ways we cope with Emily’s night or sleep terrors:

I. Minimal intervention is key. This is an ongoing struggle. Sleep terrors typically occur 1-2hrs after a child initially falls asleep – during transition between sleep stages. So, typically we can guess pretty accurately when we will hear her cry out, although sometimes we are way off, too. Some research suggests a timed wake-up, like a trip to the potty or even just a hug and a kiss. I have tried this with Emmy and stopped because I noticed she would only “wake” later in the night. We often run into her room right away when she starts crying or screaming but we try to remain calm, quiet, and just supervise the episode. Sometimes a pat on her pillow is all it takes to get her calm and back to sleeping soundly.

II. Don’t be afraid to just wake them the heck up. Everything I’ve read says not to disturb them. But GUESS WHAT? Sometimes a mama has to do what a mama has to do. I have noticed that during a particularly severe night terror, flicking her light on or carrying her to the kitchen or bathroom will wake her up quickly and although she can be confused and upset, the screaming stops.

III. Don’t take it personally. A few times Emily has started a night terror by screaming “No Mama, no mama, NO MAMAAAA!!”. The first time I heard my own daughter screaming in fear about her own mama, my heart broke. But as time goes on, I learn that I can’t take each episode personally. Emily has all she needs to thrive – a healthy diet, exercise, love, and usually-adequate sleep. We are doing all we can for her.

IV. Don’t read too much about it. This seems counter-intuitive as I’m writing this post for other parents or caregivers to read, however, there comes a point when you just can’t learn anymore about it. The peer-reviewed articles and advice columns are not there with you at 11pm on your kid’s bedroom floor while you brush their sweaty hair off their neck. Put the Google down, mama.

V. Take turns. My husband and I are true partners. Sure we argue and disagree, but when one of us need a little slack, the other will pick up without a question. When he was newly home from deployment, he was rewelcomed into the world of Emily’s sleep terrors. And he took a lot of turns. It’s tough to hear her screaming but when I know her Papa is with her, and I’m not responsible, it’s an immense relief. We take turns each night and that’s one of the most important ways we cope.

VI. Don’t be afraid to change it up. When we have a rare, uneventful night where Emmy doesn’t wake, I find myself attempting to duplicate exactly what happened that day to try and replicate the results. How long did she nap? What was her bedtime snack? Did we go out, or stay home? Did she have a bath? Did she go to bed early, or a little later? The truth is, it doesn’t really matter. Night terrors can be worsened by infection, some medications, dehydration or sleep deprivation (JAMA 2015), BUT typically your day-to-day routine doesn’t have much impact. And while we are hesitant to let Emily go anywhere for a sleepover, she typically won’t have a night terror when she (occasionally) stays with her grandparents. Lucky them!

VII. Coffee. Need I say more?!

All of that said, we love our girl so much, sleep issues and all. And if that means we lose a little sleep now, bring it on. We can catch up when she’s, like, 16 or something. Every night she gives me a hug and kiss goodnight and I say fait des beaux rêves or “sweet dreams”, even though I know that her Papa or I will be trying to calm her down in just a couple hours’ time. I hope when she closes her eyes at night, she sees only bright and happy dreams.

And if not now, maybe someday.

Fait des beaux rêves, belle fille.

JAMA Pediatr. 2015;169(7):704. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2014.2140

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