I see it all over social media: parents describing their child having sleep terrors (also called night terrors), but not knowing what they are or what to do about them.
Can I be brutally honest here? Most parents are getting it all wrong.
But today, I’m going to tell you all about them and what to do if your kids have sleep terrors.
So, what is a sleep terror?
First of all, it’s not a nightmare. It can seem like one though, because your child will suddenly appear to wake up, and start screaming and/or crying. But here’s the thing. THEY ARE NOT ACTUALLY AWAKE. Basically, your child will start freaking out–for a couple minutes or maybe even 15+–and it will freak YOU out.
When do they start?
Usually, toddlerhood or early preschool years. At least that’s what happened for us. Harlyn was about 3 when she started having them. It was often at nap time, and we had no clue what was happening. About and hour or an hour and a half into her nap time, she’d start screaming and crying. Then they started happening at bedtime too. Once she no longer napped, they continued to happen at bedtime. As time has gone on, they’ve slowed their appearance. Harlyn is now 5 ½ and has them only occasionally.
Why do they happen?
For Harlyn, they are related to stressors. So, for example, she almost always has one or two when she gets sick, because her body is not at its best. When she was 3 and 4, she’d also have them when overtired. Although this will still happen once in a while, we don’t notice them much when she’s overtired these days. She also experiences them more when there is a life change, like adjusting to being back at school after summer break.
How do you know the child is not awake?
Well, it was trial and error for us for a while. When they first started happening, we’d rush in there, thinking something was horribly wrong. But inevitably, Harlyn would be just fine…and sometimes unaware we were even in her room. A warning though: Harlyn often seems awake. She can even talk, get mad, get up, and feel us touch her. Even with all that, we eventually learned that she isn’t awake. She can yell “MOMMY!!!! DADDY!!!!!” and still not be awake. The trick for us was letting her cry for a little bit. If it’s a night terror, she’ll usually settle down within 5-10 minutes. If she’s awake and needs us, she becomes a little more vocal and persistent. Over the years, we’ve become pros at figuring this part out.
Do they remember them?
Nope! Never. Not once. Harlyn has been verbal for longer than she’s had night terrors, which means we’ve always been able to ask her if she got up last night, if she remembered crying, if she had a tough night, etc. No matter how we ask her the question, she’s never recalled having a night terror.
Should I go in there?
NO. Again, trial and error here, but NO. As parents, we want to rush in there and solve the issue. Since the child is asleep though, there’s not a whole lot to do. And if you go in, you might risk them waking up, which makes it so much worse…and then you might get stuck in there trying to put them back to bed. If you resist the urge to go into their bedroom, it will be a much quicker back to bed for all. Remember, your child isn’t aware of what’s going on–this is not a nightmare and no one needs to check for monsters.
If night terrors are happening at a certain time each night, you can start waking them up a little bit right before you’re expecting one.
If that seems a little extreme or they aren’t happening every night, then you could try playing around with bedtime/wake up time/overall amount of sleep…especially if the night terrors seem to be related to being overtired.
Disclaimer: I am not a sleep expert or sleep doctor. I am a mom whose daughter has sleep terrors (night terrors). I also happen to work in the sleep medicine field, so I have spoken to a sleep physician regarding our own family’s experience with them.
I hope you found this post helpful! If you have mom friends who might benefit from reading this post, please SHARE it with them. I’d love it!