Anyone who has had a child who suffers from vivid nightmares will tell you how difficult it can be to console their little one. Night terrors are a whole next level experience and they can be very difficult for both you and your child if not managed correctly.
Night terrors are characterised by episodes of screaming, crying, thrashing and general fear. During these episodes, your child will be somewhere in between being asleep and awake, even though they may be talking and moving around like they’re conscious. They may also experience a fast heart rate and rapid breathing, sweating, confusion and general sleep disruption.
Your child probably also won’t remember their night terrors when they wake.
How to help a child with night terrors
Generally, night terrors aren’t considered dangerous, but they can be quite upsetting for everyone in the family. Here are a few things you can do to help your child with their night terrors.
1. Let the night terror run its course
As a parent, you always want to console your child when they’re upset. This is one of the rare times doctors encourage you not to intervene. Unless you believe your child is going to hurt themselves or someone else, just let the night terror come to its own conclusion. Any efforts to wake your child, or settle them while they are still experiencing an episode is likely to make things worse.
Simply be present, monitor your child and make sure their bedroom is safe and clear of any dangerous objects. If you’re not already, it’s also a good time to make sure that the entire house is secure. Children who suffer from night terrors may also be prone to sleepwalking and you definitely don’t want your toddler taking off on a tour of the house at midnight!
2. Sleep routines are key
It may seem like stating the obvious but sleep deprivation is a real issue with children suffering from night terrors. Unfortunately, overtiredness can also compound the issue and make night terrors more frequent and severe.
You may not be able to prevent night terrors in your child, but you can make sure they have a great bedtime routine. Try and make the time before bed calm and relaxing. It’s also important to get them to sleep at an appropriate time. By getting them to bed calm and settled you can at least ensure that what sleep they do have is more restful and restorative.
3. Address any anxieties
Separation anxiety is very common in toddlers and young children. For those little ones who really struggle with being away from mum and dad, the stress of it at night can also exacerbate night terrors. This is where having a good strong sleep routine can help.
Your toddler or child will come to know and anticipate each step of the routine, and also know that you are still around to comfort them should they need it along the way.
Likewise, if you know you have a young child with other anxiety issues, or if they are going through an emotionally stressful time, make sure you try to address these triggers during waking hours.
4. Don’t make a fuss
Children who experience night terrors will often have no, or only very limited memory of the night before. As a parent, it’s important not to make a big deal of any issues that may have occurred overnight. Children can find the fact that they don’t remember their night terrors to be quite distressing. Further discussion in the family may make your child fearful of going to bed.
5. Check their breathing
Try and find a time to go in and monitor your child’s breathing at a time when they are peacefully at rest. There is a strong correlation between night terrors and sleep-disordered breathing. This can include snoring, mouth breathing and sleep apnoea.
If you notice any of these issues in your child, or know that they are already suffering from sinus, tonsil or ear issues, make sure you discuss this with your GP.
6. Avoid overstimulation
Where possible, try to avoid screentime for your child for at least an hour before bed. It’s also best to avoid sugar, caffeine or excessively large meals close to bedtime. These are all things that will help most people get a better night of rest so don’t be afraid to implement these for the whole family.
7. Wake to sleep
If you have a child who is suffering from frequent night terrors, around the same time each night, you might want to consider breaking up their sleep. Raising Children suggests gently waking them around 30 minutes before you anticipate the night terror might begin. Keep them awake for around five minutes before putting them back to bed.
A bathroom trip is always a good excuse and is unlikely to cause any undue concern in your child. Try this method for a week to see if it has any impact on the frequency or severity of your child’s night wakings.
8. Remember, this too shall pass
It’s important to remember that night terrors are probably more distressing for you than your child. For most healthy children this is just another, albeit disruptive, part of their development and they will grow out of them without any long-term effects.
It’s always a good idea to make sure you mention your child’s night terrors to your doctor or paediatrician so that they can monitor long term, and rule out any other underlying conditions. Until then, even though it may be hard, try to relax in the knowledge that everyone will be getting a restful night in the near future.
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