So you have a young child that up until now slept like, well….a baby. They may wake up on and off through the night, but typically they sleep pretty well. Then one night you wake up to a screaming child and it seems that no matter what you do you just can’t seem to calm them down. They may be screaming, thrashing around and looking purely terrified and it tears at your heart watching them be this frightened. You know they just had a bad dream and that nothing is really going to hurt them but you can’t seem to get them to understand that. It seems like the more you try to calm your child the more frightened they become. This cycle stretches on for what seems an eternity until at last they fall back to sleep and you are left sitting there feeling like you failed your child, like you couldn’t be there for them like they needed. You may even be scratching your head wondering “what the heck was that?” or “where did that come from?”. The answer could be Sleep Terror’s.
Recently I posted here that I had a weird idea to do a little research on random topics, and I asked you to help get me started. I got a couple of fun ideas and have finally been able to get a little research in on the first topic, which was Sleep Terrors in toddlers. I basically did some searching on the internet found a few websites that had some pretty good information on the topic. My aim here was to learn something, which I think I did, as well as to share what I found out with you. I take no credit for this information, I am not a doctor of course, I am simply going to pass on what I found out about sleep terrors.
So where should we start, hmm?
First off, what exactly is a sleep terror? In trying to find this answer I found that there are a few different areas to cover. The first is that many “sleep terrors” people think their children are having are actually just a good old fashioned nightmare. Plain and simple, just a bad dream. From what I read, the easiest way to tell the difference is that with a nightmare you as the parent usually will not know it happened until it is finished. After the dream is over the child may wake feeling very scared and they may have trouble going back to sleep. If your child is old enough to talk, they may even tell you about the dream they had. However it is possible that they may not remember the exact dream, instead just a scared feeling. Nightmares are completely normal in children, as are dreams of any sort. One website I was reading through said that “children dream far more than adults.” “A child under one year will dream for about five and a half hours a night, while a twenty year old adult will dream for only one and a half hours.” There are numerous reasons for a child to have a bad dream. It could be that the child has some sort of conflict in it’s life, such as having to start pre-school or maybe seperation issues. Another very likely cause for bad dreams in a young child or toddler is that the child’s imagination is developing. You can see that they are starting to play a little more creatively and you can tell in the way they play or act that while they are awake they are working on growing their imagination. At this time in a young child’s life the imagination keeps working all the time, even while they sleep. This can lead to the child imagining some scary things while they sleep. Unfortunately, when a child has a nightmare it seems that in today’s day and age more and more parents self diagnose the child as suffering from a night terror, thus wrongly describing what is going on with their child. Why they do this I don’t know for sure, but it could be so that they can avoid feeling guilty about being a bad parent. But as a parent you need to remember that a bad dream isn’t a reflection of your parenting, it’s just a bad dream. In fact Sleep Terrors are not a reflection on your parenting either. I think too many parents beat themselves up over something that they can’t control or explain and because of that they feel like they are bad parents. This is not true.
So what is a sleep terror then? I’ve told you about nightmares and how they are often mistakenly called night terrors. There is another sleep behavior that is mistakenly called a night terror. This one is not quite as common as the nightmare, but still very common in young children.
Actually I am going to use a quoted paragraph from another website I used when doing my research, called www.drgreene.org. “Within fifteen minutes of your child falling asleep they will probably enter their deepest sleep of the night. This period of slow wave sleep, or deep non-REM sleep, will typically last from forty-five to seventy-five minutes. At this time, most children will transition to a lighter sleep stage or will wake briefly before returning to sleep. Some children, however, get stuck– unable to completely emerge from slow wave sleep. Caught between stages, these children experience a period of partial arousal. Partial arousal states are classified in three categories: 1) sleep walking, 2) confusional arousal, and 3) true sleep terrors.” “When most people (including the popular press and popular parenting literature) speak of sleep terrors, they are generally referring to what are called confusional arousals by most pediatric sleep experts.” A quick side not here; regular nightmares occur during the lighter sleep known as rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, other times known simply as dream sleep. As the above quoted paragraph states, sleep terrors occur during the transition from the deep, non REM sleep into the light, REM sleep states. The state of confusional arousal is actually fairly common according to Dr. Greene, occuring in roughly 15% of toddlers and pre-school aged children. This state of sleep also typically occurs in the first third of the night and seems to happen when the child is either over-tired or when the regular sleep vs. awake schedule has been out of whack for a few days. During this confusional arousal stage the child may cry, whimper, flail about or even bolt out of bed or to a sitting position. Sometimes the child’s eyes may be open, other times closed. They also usually will be sweating. If the child has his/her eyes open they may look upset, confused or lost. In this state they have also been described to look “possessed” because their eyes may seem kind of glazed over. This description of looking possessed comes from the fact that even if the child crys out for a parent they may not recognize the parent, often times seeming to look right through them or not see them. So that is a confusional arousal stage, but still not the true sleep terrors. So what are they? Again I will quote from the www.drgreene.org website because I feel that it is said best on that site. “True sleep terrors are a more intense form of partial arousal. They are considerably less common than the afore mentioned confusional arousal, and are seldom described in popular parenting literature. True sleep terrors are primarily a phenomenon of adolescence. they occur in less than 1% of the population. These bizarre episodes begin with the child suddenly sitting bolt upright with the eyes bulging wide-open, and emitting a blood curdling scream. The child is drenched in sweat with a look of abject terror on his or her face. The child will leap out of bed, heart pounding, and run blindly from an unseen threat, breaking windows and furniture that block the way. Thus true sleep terrors can be quite dangerous, in that injury during these episodes is not unusual. Thankfully they are much shorter in duration than the more common confusional arousals of the pre-school period.”
So now we have a better idea of what sleep terrors are, but how do you handle them? How are you supposed to help your child through these episodes of fright in the middle of the night? How can you calm them down when it seems like the more you try, the more frightened the child gets?
Each type of sleep behavior is handled a bit differently. As I talked about with the nightmare, you typically won’t know about it until after it happens. In the case of a nightmare the best thing to do is speak calmly with the child. Reassure them that everything is ok and that it was just a bad dream. The important thing however is to be as boring as you can be. That sounds strange but the goal is to soothe your child and calm them down so they will fall back to sleep. After having a nightmare, a child often times is afraid to go back to sleep because that is where that bad or scared feeling came from. As a parent you need to just be there to soothe them. That may mean sitting or lying in bed with them talking calmly and softly to them, again being as boring sounding as you possibly can be so that child will not actually be interested in what you are saying. They just need to be comforted.
Sleep terrors are a whole different ballgame however, and actually are much harder on you as a parent. The best way to handle a toddler with a sleep terror is to do nothing at all. Of course watch over them and stay calm, making sure they don’t hurt themselves, but don’t try to hold them or talk to them. The reason for that is because your child isn’t actually awake at that time. Even if they may seem to be awake they are not. If you try to hold them or talk to them, even as much as saying their name, you can actually prolong the sleep terror. This happens because the child isn’t awake and mistakes your attempts and soothing or waking them as an attack or other similar scary events and will try to get away from you that much harder. Don’t take it personally, they just don’t know where they are or what is going on since they are not awake. Studies show that often times in this confusional arousal state as well as the true sleep terrors, there is a feeling of being chased, trapped or restrained. That is why if you attempt to hold them they will think they are being trapped or restrained even more. We all know that I have no children, but I can only imagine how hard it would be to have to stand by and watch your child be scared silly without being able to do anything for them. But here is the good news for you. If you leave them alone and only interact enough to make sure the child doesn’t hurt themselves, the sleep terror or confusional arousal state will only last anywhere from 1 minute up to 45 minutes. Even though I am sure that 45 minutes would seem more like days or weeks. But if you just let it run it’s course the child will typically go back to sleep without a problem and sleep soundly the remainder of the night. When they wake they will usually have no recollection at all of the episode either, so they don’t have those lingering feelings of being afraid to go to sleep.
To sum things up a true sleep terror is fairly rare and typically only happens in the adolesent stage of a child’s life. Because of the risk of the pre-teen or teen hurting themselves they can be a bit dangerous. The confusional arousal state is typically what is referred to as a sleep terror and happens when the child gets stuck between phases of sleep between the deep, non-REM (no dream sleep) and lighter, REM (dream sleep) periods of the night. They usually occur in the first 1/3 of the night as the child leaves that deepest state of sleep and can last anywhere from 1 minute to 45 minutes. If your child is waking up in the confusional arousal state, keep them safe and make sure they don’t hurt themselves but don’t otherwise attempt to touch or soothe them as it can prolong the episode. Remember, even though it is hard for you to watch and endure, your child will usually go back to sleep with no recollection of the episode at all. When your child wakes up with a regular nightmare be there to soothe and comfort them, but do so in a boring manner so that the child will fall back asleep. Take comfort in the thought that even though they had a bad dream and woke up afraid, their imagination is growing in leaps and bounds and that is very important.
Lastly, if you notice that your child is waking in the confusional arousal state on a regular basis here are a few things you can try to help get rid of them so you can get a little sleep also. First and most obvious is to make sure they are getting enough sleep. Ironically the less a child sleeps that harder it is to get them to bed at night and the more likely they are to have any sort of sleep disturbances. So getting enough sleep is critical. You may need to extend that afternoon nap time a bit, let them sleep a little later in the morning and maybe even get them in bed a little earlier at night. I have been guilty of not understanding this myself and after doing the research about sleep terrors I understand why it is important that a child get somewhat set into a sleep pattern. From the time they wake up till nap times and the time they go to bed. Granted, the child doesn’t always cooperate, but that is life! Another step you can take is to make sure you leave plenty of time before bed for those calming bedtime rituals like taking a bath, singing a song or reading a book, cuddling and even saying their prayers. That helps to develop a routine and when they do those things they will relax easier over time. If the child seems to wake up around the same time every night with an episode you can also try to gently wake your toddler about 15 minutes or so before they would typically wake up. It can alter the sleep pattern enough for them to transition between the phases of sleep without getting hung up in between. There is one last bit of information that I found about sleep terrors or other sleep disturbances in toddlers that you may want to consider checking out with your child. Often times these sleep disturbances occur at around the same ages when a child is becoming aware that their bladder feels full while they are sleeping. It is possible that some kids just need to go to the bathroom, but they don’t know what they are feeling for sure. One mom wrote in on www.drgreene.org and said that she had a son that was dealing with the confusional arousal and so she stood her son in front of the toilet and he went pee, still sleeping and not awake. A short time after that she said the episode faded abruptly and he was calmly asleep immediately. It could be a coincidence but other parents of been asked about it and most said that it was working wonders for their children as well, yet some said it had no effect. Just something else to consider when dealing with the mystery of a sleep disruption, be it sleepwalking, confusional arousal, sleep terrors or just the good old fashioned nightmare.
The bottom line is that these things are not caused by your parenting skills. Children will have nightmares and other sleep disorders at times and you may have nothing to do with it at all.
Unless of course you are forcing your child to stay up until four in the morning and watching horror movies with you before you go to bed? But a parent wouldn’t do that, right?
Of course not! Hopefully this project was interesting for at least some of you and more importantly I hoped you learned at least a little something. I know I did. Stay tuned for the next installment of Project:Research, “The history and story behind Vaseline”.
If you have any new ideas you’d like me to look into feel free to drop a comment. It may take me a little while to get to all of them as I get rolling with this, but I will get to them.
If you would like to read in more detail about any of the information in this little project the websites I used are listed below.