Cara and Rob were out of bed in an instant, the couple’s feet hitting the floor almost simultaneously. In the room across the hall, their six-year-old had suddenly begun shrieking in fright. Snapping on the light, Cara and Rob found their daughter sitting up in bed, her eyes fixed on the far wall.
"We tried to calm her," Cara recalls, "but she wouldn’t tell us what was wrong; she just kept screaming. And she wouldn’t make eye contact either – she was staring over my shoulder, off into space. Rob kept saying, ‘What’s wrong with her? What’s wrong with her?’ "
Experiencing your child’s first night terror
Fortunately, Cara already knew the answer. "Just a couple of weeks earlier I had read about night terrors in children – something I had never heard of before. So I realised pretty quickly that’s what we were dealing with. But even though I knew what it was, it was still a very disturbing experience. I’d never seen Rob so scared."
Eventually their daughter calmed down and went back to sleep, but the episode had one more surprise in store for Cara and Rob.
"The next morning, when we tried to talk [to our daughter] about what had happened, she had no idea what we were talking about. She didn’t recall a nightmare, and she didn’t remember us being in her room. We could hardly believe it."
Like Cara and Rob, most parents are profoundly unnerved by their son or daughter’s first night terror. Although the child appears to be experiencing a nightmare, a night terror is very different. Typically, parents find their child sitting up in bed, wide-eyed and panic-stricken. With all the crying and yelling involved, the child certainly seems to be awake, but in reality the child is still sound asleep and will not respond to the parents. An episode usually lasts 10 to 20 minutes, with the child eventually falling back into a calm sleep.
Three common triggers of night terrors
Night terrors have three common triggers – a fever, over-tiredness or stress – and are most common in children ages three to seven, becoming rare after age 10. Experts advise against waking a child during a night terror, since the child usually awakes very disoriented and quickly becomes upset. Betsy Brown Braun, a child development and behaviour specialist and author of Just Tell Me What to Say and You’re Not the Boss of Me, has this reassuring advice for parents:
"A night terror doesn’t harm the child. It’s the parents, not the child, who are traumatised by the experience! It’s very important that the parent stays calm and uses calm, soothing tones to reassure the child. Even though your child may not seem to respond to you, your calming voice and presence will help him calm down and return to peaceful sleep."
Night terrors differ from nightmares in that they usually occur within the first few hours of sleep, and most children have no memory of the episode. Nightmares, on the other hand, occur during REM (dream state) sleep, most often in the second half of the night. And, of course, nightmares are recalled by the child, often bringing parents to their child’s bedside in the too-early hours of the morning!
Chasing away nightmares
How you can best deal with the aftermath of a nightmare will depend on your child. "Some children may be ready to go back to sleep right away," says Brown Braun, "whereas others may need to talk it out right then and there. A parent should calmly reassure her child that the nightmare has gone away, and point out that she – the parent – is always nearby. Be wary, though, of allowing your child into your bed after a nightmare. That can quickly become a habit that’s hard to break."
If your youngster is troubled by memories of the bad dream the following day and appears fearful of going to sleep again, Brown Braun suggests sitting down together to draw a picture of the main "character" in the nightmare.
"A young child may need help to process what is real and what is not. As you draw, talk about the fact that the nightmare wasn’t real. You may even want to tear the picture into little pieces, then throw it in the rubbish or flush it down the toilet to reinforce the idea that the nightmare has gone away."
Parents can do a lot to prevent nightmares too. A regular bedtime, adequate sleep and a soothing bedtime routine is critical for young children. "It’s so important that the child’s last memories, before he or she goes to sleep, are positive ones," says Brown Braun. "Have a ‘talk it out time’ together so the child can share his or her worries, and always end on a positive note."
"Also look at the sleep environment," urges Brown Braun. "Is it soothing? Or are loud sounds intruding, such as traffic noise or disturbance from other areas of the house? Calming music or white noise can help cut out background sounds."
Stress is a common culprit as well; frequent nightmares in children can be a barometer of the emotional state of the family as a whole.
Awaking to a new nightmare: sleep paralysis
Stress is also a frequent trigger for another disquieting sleep disturbance commonly known as sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is relatively rare in young children – a first episode typically occurs in the teen years – but the experience itself can be terrifying, even for a teenager. It’s wise for parents to be aware of the phenomenon and equipped to reassure their son or daughter if needed.
Simply stated, sleep paralysis is a physiological "oops" that can occur on waking, or more rarely, on falling asleep. In normal sleep, as you enter the REM sleep phase, your brain shuts down muscle control in most of your body – an important step that prevents your body acting out your dreams. In sleep paralysis, your consciousness reawakens moments before muscle control is reactivated. You suddenly become aware that you are paralysed, with the paralysis normally lasting from a few seconds to a few minutes.
Visual and audio hallucinations
As if temporary paralysis is not disturbing enough, the experience can get even worse: the lack of muscle control may be accompanied by visual and audio hallucinations and a conviction that there is a malevolent presence in the room. This is how Anne Stewart, whose episodes of sleep paralysis began in early childhood, describes some of her experiences:
"My first sleep paralysis event took place while I was still sleeping in a crib. I remember waking up and sensing something heavy on my back. I was unable to speak or move in any way, and I was filled with terror. It seemed to last forever.
"As a teen and young adult, I always found myself lying on my back, absolutely unable to move a muscle – to flee or scream out for help – while being frightfully aware that there was something terrifying either just outside my bedroom door or beside me, just outside my peripheral vision. One event stands out from the others because this time I ‘heard’ noise and chaos just outside my door. I was frozen, but in my mind I was crying out for Jesus to help me and send His angels."
Given such a dramatic presentation, it may be difficult to convince your youngster that the hallucinations are merely "echoes" of a nightmare that intrude into the first moments of waking, and that the paralysis itself is nothing more than a slight "timing error" as parts of the brain switch between different stages of sleep.
Here’s a suggestion that might help: Try starting with a discussion of the complexity of the human body and the many different systems that need to "switch on and off" with perfect timing. To illustrate your point, follow up with a simple game of "Simon Says," instructing your son or daughter to switch a light on or off at your command. Eventually he or she is likely to get confused and lag behind in hitting the switch!
As with "regular" nightmares, you should also provide reassurance that the hallucinations are not real, and that you are always close by. After each episode of sleep paralysis, it’s also a good idea to remind your son or daughter that the paralysis is never harmful or permanent.
Praying before bedtime
If you are not already doing so, why not start a regular habit of praying through God’s promises with your child at bedtime? Praying through passages like Psalms 91, 121 or 139 will help allay your child’s fears by reminding them that God is always with them. Better yet, help your child memorise reassuring verses. Another simple way to help your child self soothe in the middle of the night is to have praise music available at his or her bedside, ready to play quietly at the touch of a button. For safety, be sure to use speakers, not earbuds.