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6 Things I Didn't Know About My Kid's Night Terrors

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Until my son had his first night terror, I thought night terrors were just really bad dreams. And I guess in theory they are. But if you are the parent of a child who has or is prone to night terrors, you know they are far more than just a bad dream. Night terrors can be frightening, disturbing, stressful and of course, terrifying. And while your child will wake up the next day having no recollection of the past night’s night terror, the memory of it will be firmly implanted on your brain for weeks to come.

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My son started having night terrors when he was about 4. They didn’t happen often, but they happened. I consulted our pediatrician (and anyone whose child is having night terrors should consult their pediatrician) to make sure the night terrors weren’t symptomatic of something I needed to worry more about. With anything serious ruled out, I started to read as much as I could on the subject and was pleased to read that most kids stop having night terrors around the age of 5 or 6.

But my son didn’t stop having night terrors at 5 or 6. In fact when he was 6 and had a very hard year at school, the frequency of his night terrors reached a fever pitch and he was having them every night for about two months. I started to notice the patterns in my son’s night terrors. Turns out, there was nothing random about when he was having them. After paying close attention, I could tell when he was going to have them, even down to the minute.

So if your child is prone to night terrors, your pediatrician is the first person you should talk to. But if your child is like mine and is deemed normal but prone to night terrors, maybe a few things I learned about my son’s sleep patterns and habits will help you understand your child’s. With a little information, night terrors don’t have to be so terrifying for parents.

It’s pretty scary to see your kid so scared. Trust me, I’ve been there.

1. Night terrors happen like clockwork

Technically a night terror is an arousal from sleep that occurs during the first three to four hours of sleep during a sleep stage called non-rapid eye movement sleep. That means the brain can’t transition seamlessly from one stage of sleep to the next and it arouses the child into a panicked state. They can be disoriented, see things that aren’t there while screaming and sometimes getting physically aggressive. And they won’t remember one single moment of it the next day.

I started to notice that my son always had his night terrors 90 minutes after he went to bed. So when he was having them often, I was ready at the 90-minute mark. And if I had a babysitter coming, I educated the sitter on how to deal with the night terror and when one would probably occur.

2. Night terrors happened when my son was overtired

Some kids don’t need a strict bedtime but mine does. That’s because when he gets overtired, he’s more prone to night terrors. So I’m strict about his bedtime even if that means he has to miss out on something fun. I try to protect him from night terrors and that means him getting to bed on time.

3. Heat gave my son night terrors

I don’t know the medical reasoning behind this but I did notice that when our house was too warm, my son had more night terrors. So in the summer I run the air conditioning at bedtime. And in the winter, I close his vent or don’t turn the heat on. Sure that means I’m often sleeping in mittens, but that’s better than my son waking up screaming and panicked.

4. Anxiety can cause night terrors

Every article I read said anxiety doesn’t cause night terrors, but my son’s situation reached a fever pitch the year he hated school and was highly anxious about it. So before he went to bed each night, we’d talk about his worries. It helped get his worries out of his brain so he could sleep better.

5. Scary TV gave him night terrors

I don’t think scary TV gave my son night terrors exactly, but when he was in a more anxious stage the images he saw before bed really affected his sleep. So I’m cautious to the point of being vigilant about what he watches, especially before bed. Kids’ brains are busy. We have to be careful what we fill their heads with.

6. Getting woken up around the time he usually had a night terror often gave my son a night terror

I used to wake my son up to go to the bathroom before I went to bed. Sometimes I’d want to go to bed early and wake him up at a time that was about 90-120 minutes after he went to bed, which is the exact time he had night terrors if he were going to have one. Sometimes when I’d wake him up, I clearly caused a night terror. So I learned to wait until later in the evening, even if that meant I had to stay up longer than I wanted.

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I’ve seen my son’s night terrors get less and less frequent as he gets older, less anxious and as we understand his sleep habits better. But for any parent whose child wakes up screaming and disoriented in the early part of the evening, night terrors can be incredibly stressful and disturbing. So just remember that night terrors are pretty common and your child will grow out of them. Until then, just make sure your child is safe during the night terror and pat yourself on the back for getting through it. It’s pretty scary to see your kid so scared. Trust me, I’ve been there.

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