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Beyond Bad Dreams

When parents of toddlers - and even babies, to an extent - reach out to us about their child's sleep problems, they often tell us that they're suffering from night terrors.

However, when we drill into the information a little further, we find out that it's not always night terrors that are causing the night wakings.

The reason for this is that the parent sees their child wake up feeling upset - sometimes so upset that they don't know someone is with them - and assume it's a night terror because that is a common symptom.

Night terrors in children are fairly infrequent and are often misdiagnosed.

So let's talk about what they are, when night terrors happen and how to mitigate them.

What are night terrors?

A child's night terrors – often mistaken for nightmares or babies just waking from a sleep cycle upset – are an incomplete arousal in the transition of deep sleep to light sleep within a sleep cycle, and a child that experiences night terrors may shout, thrash around, and be panicked.

Night terrors typically occur in the earlier part of the night when sleep is naturally deeper and are most common in children aged between 3 – 8 years old.

When an episode happens, the child will usually 'wake' quite suddenly and sound distressed.

Even though the child’s eyes are open during a night terror, they are not fully awake, so they likely won’t recognise their parent when they go in to soothe them, and they definitely won’t remember the episode the next morning.

There can often be a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking, so it's worth asking family members if it's something they are aware of.

But there are other common triggers such as over-tiredness, sleep deprivation, a fever, or certain types of medication.

It’s also linked to things that are more likely to make a child wake from a deep sleep such as such a change in sleep environment (e.g. moving home, staying with family, going on holiday) or something that disturbs their sleep like a sudden noise or having a full bladder.

What Should You Do During Night Terror Episodes?

If a night terror happens, it’s important to stay calm and let your child go through the episode, with your focus being on keeping them safe so that they can’t physically hurt themselves.

For example, if your child gets out of bed, you should move any objects that could hurt them out of the way, but not try to stop them getting out, or try and put them back into bed.

You definitely shouldn’t try to wake them as it can upset them more as they are unlikely to recognise you in that moment. This is critical.

If the episodes happen regularly, a calming and predictable bedtime routine can relieve any feelings of anxiety before your little one falls asleep.

Make sure bedtime is at the right time for their age, as being overtired is a big contributor of night terrors.

It can also be simple things like making sure the room environment is calming, or for potty-trained infants, making sure that they go to the toilet before bed to avoid a full bladder disturbing them.

Parents are encouraged not to talk about the actual night terrors the next day – it is better to be more generic and ask if there is anything bothering them. They won't remember, so talking about it with them could create more anxiety.

Instead, offering your child the opportunity to let out any worries they have that might be contributing to it is a better way to approach it.

Sometimes night terrors can occur at exactly the same time each night as it can become very habitual.

Are Night Terrors Different To Nightmares?

They are actually very different.

We see nightmares more frequently in children aged 3 to 6 years old and they usually occur later in the night when sleep is naturally lighter. Little ones may wake up and be able to remember and describe the dream to you (depending on their age).

Nightmares in children can be caused by a frightening experience, such as watching a scary film, or by something that’s worrying them.

You should be very mindful of what your children see and hear, as things that adults wouldn’t consider upsetting can cause strong feelings of fear, distress or anxiety and can play on young minds.

Therefore, a relaxing bedtime routine including reading books of a happy, calming nature is really important. Avoid anything overly emotive that can heighten their anxiety before falling asleep.

You should offer reassurance and comfort when they wake the next day after a nightmare; talking to them to find out whether anything is worrying them that could be triggering their nightmares.

It’s good to validate their feelings and let them speak about what is troubling them, rather than dismiss any fears or concerns as this may frustrate them.

Children drawing out their thoughts the next day on paper can also be helpful for not only the child, but for the parents to visually see what’s going on in their mind.

Do Children Outgrow Night Terrors?

Most children usually outgrow them by early teenage years and, whilst there's no specific treatment for night terrors, there are steps you can take to help reduce the chances of them happening, which is explained below.

How To Stop Night Terrors?

Whilst most children would grow out of them by early teenage years, there are steps you can use to try and reduce/stop them happening in the meantime:

* Try to ensure your child has enough sleep, as over-tiredness is a big driver of night terrors. When we work with children who have night terrors, we focus on reducing any sleep deficit, using naps and/or earlier bedtime to reduce that overtired factor as much as possible.

* Create a relaxing bedtime routine, so they go to bed in a calmer state. If your child is proving challenging at bedtime, making the routine far from relaxing, allow them control of things such as letting them choose their own pyjamas or which books they read. Toddlers thrive off control, so letting them control the things you really don't care about as much - but they feel strongly about - can be really helpful.

* If it's happening regularly at the same time, you can use a method called Wake To Sleep with the aim of breaking that continuous cycle each night.

If your child is having frequent night terrors, we recommend that you reach out to a sleep specialist for help. If you're concerned about their health, you should contact your GP to discuss further.

Dani and Chris McFadden run The Mummy & Daddy Sleep Consultant® - a family run business operating at the gentle end of the sleep training spectrum. They offer a range of sleep plans and train new sleep consultants through their Training Academy.