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THE TERROR OF THE NIGHT

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

If you’ve seen your child have a night terror, you’re probably aware of the lingering feeling. Pearl Mathias tells you why you shouldn’t dismiss it as a nightmare and what you can do about it

Does your child suddenly jolt up in bed with a terrifying shock only to fall back asleep almost oblivious to what happened? It’s easy to dismiss this as a recurrent nightmare and it’s easier still not to address the issue the following day. But, if you’re around your child when such an incident strikes, you’re aware that it’s not an easy situation to tackle, especially since your child doesn’t seem to recognise your presence and may not respond to you. This may strike you as odd, but as easy as it is to simply let it pass, there are a few things you need to know about night terrors, especially if your child experiences them on a regular basis.

What are night terrors?
Night terrors are a kind of sleep disorder that affects children between the ages of three and twelve. To understand night terrors, it’s important to know about sleep patterns. Sleep is divided into two main types — rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) — and it occurs in several stages. We dream during REM sleep and nightmares are dreams that occur during the REM phase. But night terrors occur during non-REM sleep. However, these aren’t dreams and occur during the transition from the deepest non-REM phase to a light REM phase. Most of the time, the transition is a smooth one. But occasionally, a child becomes agitated and frightened during the transition, and this fear response is called a night terror.

What causes them?
There’s no definitive cause, and sadly there’s no sure-fire way to prevent them from occurring. However, if your child suffers from night terrors, it doesn’t mean that they have a psychological problem. Neither does it mean that he/she may be upset or uncomfortable with something in their life. The good news is that certain factors make the occurrence of night terrors less likely, such as making sure that your child gets enough sleep. However, the chances of your child suffering from night terrors increases if someone in the family has had them, and also if someone is prone to sleepwalking. Certain conditions like sleep apnoea, restless leg syndrome or even gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) may trigger night terrors. And, it’s quite possible that something as simple as caffeine consumption or certain medication could increase the likelihood of your child experiencing a night terror.

What you can do about it
It’s understandable that you may want to intervene and console your child when they are in the middle of a dreadful night terror. But, as much as you think your child would like that, it’s unlikely that it will be of much help. Instead, it’s wise to be patient and wait for them to calm down, since your child may not recognise you in the middle of an episode, they may get agitated if you attempt to wake them. Once the episode has ended, it is safe to wake your child up and ensure that they don’t fall back asleep immediately. This may cause another episode to follow. So, make sure that the child is wide awake before putting them back to sleep.

If you’ve noticed that these night terrors happen frequently and take place at a particular time, try waking your child up for 15 minutes before the anticipated time every day for a week. You may find that this helps to break the cycle without hampering the quality of your child’s sleep. Other steps that you can take include making sure that your child’s room is safe so that they don’t injure themselves in the middle of an episode.

When you should see a doctor
Although most children eventually grow out of it, if you’re concerned about the frequent, recurring episodes that your child is suffering from, consult a doctor. Here are a few reasons you may want to get your child checked by a general practitioner.

  • The episodes disrupt the sleep of family members on a regular basis.
  • It instils a fear of sleeping in both you and your child.
  • Night terrors persist beyond childhood and into adolescence.
  • It leads to serious injury.

Symptoms of a night terror
Unlike nightmares that adults have, children can’t recollect what happened during a night terror. However, only a small percentage of children experience night terrors — with girls and boys being affected equally — and the disorder usually resolves itself as the child reaches adolescence. Night terrors that occur in the early part of the night and which can last for several minutes can be detected by the following symptoms:

  • Sitting up in bed
  • Screaming, shouting or kicking
  • A racing pulse and heavy breathing
  • Staring wide-eyed
  • Difficult to shake awake
  • Stepping out of bed and running around the house

How are they different from nightmares?
The simple way to distinguish a night terror from a nightmare is that the latter will leave your child with a memory of the incident. The biggest indicator of a nightmare is that your child not only remembers the bad dream, but will also want to talk about it and feel comforted by your presence. According to sleep expert Jodi A. Mindell, author of Sleeping through the Night, the easiest way to tell the difference between a night terror and a nightmare is to ask yourself who’s more upset about it the next morning. If your child is more agitated, he/ she had a nightmare. If you’re disturbed but your child doesn’t seem affected and doesn’t remember anything about it, he/ she probably had a night terror. We think that sums it up quite well.

 

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