Handling Night Terrors

by Elizabeth Crane

Handling Night Terrors

When he was 4, Rachael Bittick of Clarkston, MI, started screaming out in the middle of the night. But when his mom or dad would rush to his room, he’d be inconsolable — and fast asleep. The very next morning, he would have no idea of what had happened.

Nearly all children experience occasional confusional arousal — when they wake up slightly, look around yet don’t seem to comprehend what they’re seeing, then fall right back to sleep. But at least 5 percent of kids suffer from night terrors, which involve screaming, flailing, walking around, and babbling. They’re not having a bad dream, since they’re totally unaware of their behavior. But for parents it can be a nightmare.

Night terrors occur when the brain gets stuck between deeper and lighter levels of sleep, says Deborah Lin-Dyken, M.D., an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Iowa. As kids get older, their brains become able to get past this sticking point and the symptoms stop. Until then, night terrors can’t be cured, but there are ways to stave them off — and handle them when they do happen:

* Avoid triggers like overtiredness, radical schedule changes, fever (reduce it before bedtime), stress, and certain meds (such as antihistamines).
* Keep your cool. He’s not awake, but your child can sense if you’re panicking, so be calm and soothing.
* Preempt him. If your child has night terrors at a certain time, wake him 15 minutes beforehand, then tuck him back in. This will circumvent the “stuckness” that causes the night terror.
* But let him sleep through it. He’ll just be confused and upset if you interrupt it.
* Make sure he’s safe. Clear the floor and watch him so he doesn’t hurt himself if he falls out of bed or wanders around.