What To Do If Your Child Is Having Night Terrors

What are night terrors and what should you do if your child is experiencing them

When your child suddenly starts waking in the middle of the night screaming inconsolably yet seems to still be asleep he may be experiencing a night terror. While this can be a common occurrence in children it’s a frightening event to experience, more so for mom and dad, and can happen as early as the age of 2 years old.

A night terror is a sleep interruption that can look very similar to a nightmare, but with a far more startling appearance. Night terrors can be scary for parents but rest assured, they're not usually cause for concern or a sign of a deeper medical issue and usually the child won’t remember the episode in the morning. Night terrors happen during deep in the sleep cycle called non-REM sleep. It is not a dream, but a partial arousal episode that happens as the child is transitioning out of one sleep cycle and into another. Night terrors will most likely occur in or around 2 or 3 hours after your child falls asleep.    

Night terrors are caused by an over stimulated central nervous system (CNS) during sleep. We want to remember not to wake the child during the terror but create a safe surrounding so not to hurt themselves if they start thrashing. There are no treatments for night terrors, but there are ways to help prevent your child from having them.

1. Limit screen time in the evenings: Make it a household rule to turn all screens off (TV, computers, phones, tablets…) at least one hour before bedtime. The light from the screens of these devices can delay the release of the sleep-inducing hormone, melatonin. We want our brains to shut off before going to bed, not be over worked. 

2. Establish a relaxing, and consistent, bedtime routine: Before bed make sure to allow your child to have some downtime so they are able to de-stress and call it a day. Draw them a warm bath, read them a story and make sure any activities are quiet.  It’s also a good idea to be consistent with a bedtime and stick to a similar bedtime each night.

3. Make sure their room is conducive to sleep establishing an environment that is as dark, cool, and as quiet as possible. Set up their bedrooms for sleep success.

4. Avoid having your child become overtired: As mentioned above, a consistent bedtime is key. Many parents have the misconception that if they are to push their child beyond exhaustion, their child will sleep longer and have a better quality of sleep during the night. This simply is untrue. We want to avoid pushing our children to that state of exhaustion because we then risk over stimulation and over-tiredness. When they go down well-rested they will sleep more restfully therefore transfer in and out of each sleep cycle as best they can in hopes to avoid any future night terrors

Night terrors can be scary but keep in mind; your child most likely won’t remember the episode the next morning. Creating a healthy sleep environment and routine are the first steps to your child sleeping soundly through the night again.

Laura Armstrong is a certified Sleep Consultant with Good Night Sleep Site Toronto, Registered Massage Therapist and mother to her amazing daughter Norah, and wife to her wonderful husband Daniel. They live in the west end of Toronto.



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