Terrors of the night

Terrors of the night

Sleep plays a crucial role in a child’s development. However, if children are haunted by nightly terrors, their health will be adversely affected. What are night terrors and what can you do to ensure that your child sleeps peacefully when night falls.

Sufficient sleep is a central part of a healthy lifestyle. During sleep, your body and brain actively work to support healthy brain and body functions. In children, sleep plays a vital role in their well-being in terms of health, state-of-mind and safety. However, if they don’t get a proper amount of sleep, their health can be adversely affected. They may also become hyper, disagreeable and exhibit extreme changes in behaviour.

There are many factors that can lead to sleep problems in children. A child’s drive for independence and an increase in their motor, cognitive and social abilities can interfere with sleep. Additionally, with the further development of imagination in children aged between three and five, it is common for them to experience nightmares, sleepwalking and night terrors.

Fearful reactions

During a typical night, sleep occurs in several stages. Each is associated with a particular brain activity, and it’s during the rapid eye movement (REM) stage that most dreaming occurs.

Unlike nightmares – which occur during REM sleep, night terrors happen during deep non-REM sleep. A night terror, which is common in children aged three to 12, is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare, but has a far more dramatic presentation. This is because a night terror is not technically a dream, but more of a sudden reaction of fear that happens during the transition from one sleep phase to another.

Night terrors are caused by an over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep. This may happen because the CNS – which regulates sleep and waking brain activity, is still maturing. Some children may inherit a tendency for this over-arousal – about 80% who have night terrors have a family member who has also experienced them or who even sleepwalks.

There are various factors that contribute to night terrors including, sleep deprivation, fatigue, stress, anxiety, fever, sleeping in unfamiliar surroundings and even light or noise.

Occurrence of an episode

Similar to sleepwalking and nightmares, night terrors are a parasomnia – an undesired occurrence during sleep that usually takes place during the first third of the sleep period.

A typical night terror episode usually begins approximately 90 minutes after falling asleep and most episodes last only a few minutes. However, in some cases, they may last up to 30 minutes before the child relaxes and returns to normal sleep.

What differentiates nightmares and night terrors, is that the dreamer of a nightmare will be able to remember details of the dream once they awake from slumber, but a person who has a night terror episode won’t remember anything about their night terrors in the morning.

During a night terror episode, the child may show a number of symptoms such as sitting up in bed abruptly, screaming and shouting, kicking and thrashing around, staring into space wide-eyed, breathing heavily or having a racing pulse. While appearing to be awake, they would also seem confused, disoriented and unresponsive to stimuli.

When this happens, even if parents try comforting the child, they will not be aware of their parents’ presence and won’t respond to attempts to help them.

Settling back into sleep

It can be upsetting for parents who will feel helpless at not being able to comfort or soothe their child. Nevertheless, the best way to handle a night terror is to wait it out patiently and make sure the child doesn’t hurt herself by thrashing around. Children will usually settle down and return to sleep on their own a few minutes after the episode.

It isn’t a good idea to try waking a child during a night terror episode because these attempts usually don’t work. Even if they do, the child will be disoriented and confused, and it may take longer for them to settle down and go back to sleep.

Although there’s no treatment for night terrors, parents can still prevent them by making sure to reduce the child’s stress, establish and stick to a bedtime routine that’s simple and relaxing, ensure that the child has enough rest and prevent the child from becoming overtired by staying up too late.

Though night terrors can be alarming for parents who witness them, they’re not usually a cause of concern or the sign of a deeper medical issue. However, if you’re still worried, it’s advisable to consult your doctor. This is especially advised if the episodes become more frequent and cause your child to be afraid of going sleep.

According to Ding Child and Adult Psychology Centre’s Clinical Psychologist, Selina Ding, the following may help your child have a peaceful night’s sleep.

  • Create a calming and safe environment for your child. You can do so by playing soothing music or diffusing aroma oils, two hours prior to bedtime. Being physically affectionate with your child by giving hugs will also ensure that they feel safe.
  • Sharing bedtime stories or doing relaxing activities such as board games.
  • Have a consistent bed time. Fatigue can contribute to sleep terrors, hence an earlier bedtime or a more regular sleep schedule is necessary.
  • Make bedtime comfortable for your child by reducing any disturbing noises and have the lights dimmed.
  • Reduce strenuous or mind-boggling activities two hours before bedtime.
  • Reduce aggressive games and play duration on mobile devices and computers as these can contribute to your child not getting the sleep they need.

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