The word -sleep’ tends to conjure up thoughts of peaceful rest with dreams offering you free reign as you float through colour spattered meadows… but for Junior, sleep may not always bring such carefree joy. He may just be one of the 3% of our little friends worldwide who suffer from sleep terrors.
But rest assured (if you can!), while your stomach is in knots as you watch your night time angel thrash around in his bed frantically screaming in fear, your child knows nothing of what he is going through.
Strange? Certainly. Weird? Most definitely. True? Absolutely.
A small percentage of children between the ages of three and 12 suffer this extraordinary affliction, and yet they do not wake mid-stream and have no recollection of their harrowing ordeal when they wake in the morning. It’s mom and dad who do all the suffering as they stand by, not being able to stop or even console their child who looks like he’s fighting for his life!
These terrors are 5-20 minute long episodes of extreme agitation showing extreme fear, sweating, confusion, crying and even screaming during the night. These are not nightmares but definite night terrors. The distinguishing factor is that nightmares occur later on in the sleep pattern – during the REM phase, and children can easily remember such ugly dreams. Sleep terrors occur during stage four of the sleep pattern, just before the REM sleep stage.
Research has not yet been able to finely pinpoint why this happens, but it is obvious to them that the triggers include hereditary factors, stress, anxiety, being over tired and sleep-disordered breathing.
Although a child with night terrors will not waken, he will appear to be awake and often keeps his eyes wide open. He will scream a lot, shout, lash around or run around the room. He may sleep walk too, but because of this raging fear can often be somewhat frantic and can therefore hurt himself. If your child is suffering from night terrors, do not be alarmed at the fact that he will not recognise you while this episode is going on as he is actually in a very deep sleep.
Much constraint is needed on your behalf as all you can do is see he doesn’t hurt himself during this time. Attempting to restrain him or even lovingly awaken him will undoubtedly cause him still more distress.
The episode will fizzle as quickly as it starts and the sufferer usually simply slips into a normal sleep pattern again. But should your child wake all you need do is gently pacify him back to sleep again. Night terrors do not cause any psychological harm.
There is no treatment but if you suspect your child may have sleep terrors it is advisable to take him to your doctor so he can rule out all other possible conditions such as nocturnal seizures, panic attacks or even post traumatic stress disorder. Children experience and display signs of stress and trauma differently from adults and because we live in a stress-filled world we need to consider that things like divorce, fighting at home, violence and aggression in any form can have devastating effects on our kids.
Try to establish if your child has a routine as far as the onset of an attack goes and then be sure to waken him about 15-30 minutes before one is due. Take him to the loo to ensure he wakens enough to disrupt his sleep pattern, yet not enough so he cannot return to sleep.
Try to remain calm, remembering he is actually none the wiser.