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Mama Drama: Night Terrors

Dear Mama Drama:

My 3 1/2-year-old son recently had an episode of night terrors. His older sister went through her share of them but nothing of this magnitude. About 90 minutes after he went to bed, we awoke to his screaming. He was absolutely hysterical: crying, flailing and still asleep. We tried to calm him down but it took 30 very scary minutes before he snapped out of it.

I have heard different advice. Some recommend waking the child up, others say to just watch him closely and talk in reassuring tones until he goes back to sleep. What do you recommend?

~Terror-fied Mama

(Photo Credit)

Dear Terror-fied:

Night terrors can be very scary experiences for parents. Watching your child in terror can leave you feeling helpless and unnerved. Most of us have experienced nightmares and have comforted our children with them. Night terrors, however, are a whole other ballgame!

Your description of the screaming, flailing, and crying as well as the episode occurring within the first couple of hours after falling asleep are common for children with night terrors. The good news is that while terrified during the experience, children do not generally remember it when they awaken. They are often confused upon waking and do not understand what is going on. They can also be quite shaken, especially if woken up by a distraught parent. Some children may take a long time to calm down after a night terror episode, while others may go back to sleep quickly.

The American Academy of Sleep Medicine recommends that parents:

  • “Remain calm so that you do not frighten your child with a panic-stricken response.
  • Do not try to wake your child
  • Watch your child to make sure that he or she remains safe.
  • Wait near your child until he or she returns to normal sleep.”

A risk associated with night terrors is sleep walking, as children can injure themselves inadvertently. This is another reason to remain close to your child during a night terror episode.

Children often have night terrors when they are over-tired or out of their regular sleep routine. Sticking to a regular routine and making sure your child gets enough sleep can help. Additionally, if your son is having more frequent night terrors, you can interrupt the sleep cycle by awakening him prior to the time he typically has a night terror.

If you continue to have concerns or the night terror episodes increase, please contact your pediatrician. Keeping a sleep diary can give the doctor more information about the patterns of sleep and what may be impacting your son. Typically, there are not medical interventions for night terrors, but possible underlying causes may be addressed. You may also consider some alternative or complimentary medicine treatments such as homeopathy, flower essences, or energy work.

Motherhood is an amazing journey that can have its share of Mama Drama. The Mama Drama column runs on Fridays with everyday mothering questions from readers and answers providing strategies to tackle these daily challenges. Send your questions and challenges to [email protected], and your Mama Drama could be in next week’s column! All emails and identifying information will remain confidential.