Q. My 5-year-old has been waking up screaming in the middle of the night. When my husband or I try to comfort him, he physically lashes out. The episodes last about 30 to 40 minutes, and in the morning, he doesn't remember a thing. Is he suffering from night terrors?
A. Your parental diagnosis seems to be correct. Of the two main types of sleep disturbances—nightmares and night terrors—nightmares are the more unsettling to a child, as she'll tend to remember the scary details after waking. Because nightmares occur during REM (light) sleep, they often jolt a child awake, thereby causing more restlessness and sleep deprivation.
Night terrors (also called "sleep terrors") are certainly unsettling for parents, but seldom bother a child. Because they occur during a deeper stage of sleep, they don't fully awaken the child, nor does the child remember the details. Unlike nightmares, which usually come at the end of a night's sleep, night terrors often occur in the first few hours. Sometimes a child's sleep disturbances share characteristics of both nightmares and night terrors.
Here's how to help your child get through the night—peacefully:
Be sure your child gets enough sleep
The most common cause of night terrors is sleep deprivation. Try putting your child to bed earlier—most 5-year-olds need at least ten hours of sleep each night.
A peaceful day leads to a restful night
Take stock of any possible disruptions in your child's life, such as school, teacher, or caregiver problems; anxieties about friends; or domestic upsets. Have a conversation with your child about what might be bothering him. Both nightmares and night terrors can reflect an imbalance in a child's life, whether it's emotional, physical or biochemical.
Review your child's diet
Make sure your child isn't drinking a lot of caffeinated drinks during the day—it's a common culprit of biochemical sleep disturbance. Offer your child sleep-inducing foods as a bedtime snack. Good choices include a raisin-oatmeal cookie with a glass of milk; a cup of yogurt with blueberries mixed in; a hardboiled egg with a half slice of whole-wheat toast; half a peanut-butter sandwich on whole-grain bread; or apple slices with peanut butter. These foods have a combo of the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan and healthy carbs. Avoid junk carbs before bed, such as sweetened beverages and pastries.
Enjoy an active day
While peaceful days are important, so is being active. Healthy activity during the day releases neurohormones, which relax both the body and the brain, especially at night.
Have a calming before-bed ritual
Avoid scary TV shows or computer games in the evening. Create a prolonged nighttime ritual that your child will look forward to, such as a warm bath, back rub, and storytime. A child who goes to bed with a mindful of pleasant scenes and feelings is more likely to stay peacefully asleep.
Give your child a peaceful sleeping environment
Continue to be a sympathetic parent to your child during his night terrors. Even though he may seem terrified, remain calm yourself. Softly reassure him that he's okay, and that he's safe. If your child does awaken and senses you're not afraid, he'll get back to sleep more easily. You can put a mattress, futon or stack of comfy blankets at the foot of your bed and let him sleep there for a few nights. Sometimes having his parents close by is just the reassurance and comfort a child needs to recover a healthy sleep attitude: Sleep is a pleasant state to enter and a fearless one to remain in.