Dear Dr. Debbie,
Following her first three months as a colicky baby, our daughter has been a generally happy child. Around her first birthday we’d even have a night or two of uninterrupted sleep for about nine hours. Then things changed. Almost every night for the past two months she will cry out and thrash her legs, return to sleep, then cry out and thrash again maybe an hour or two later.
Usually one of us will pick her up but that doesn’t seem to matter. When she’s done she’s done, whether she’s been rocked and sung to, been nursed or just had her back patted. This can be as much as five times per night, though it’s hard to keep track.
I lie awake between episodes worrying I won’t fall back asleep and that she’ll wake me up again. Besides the unrestful sleep contributing to her parents having foggy brains, she doesn’t seem to be affected at all by this. During the day she explores, babbles, plays peek-a-boo, enjoys different foods and shows genuine affection to family members, close friends and pets. She has an hour-long nap or two each day with absolutely no screaming.
Is this night terrors? Can it be stopped?
Don’t miss last week’s column Tricks for dealing with all the Halloween treats — Good Parenting
Night terrors is the name of a sleep disorder sometimes associated with sleep walking that affects from 3 to 6.5 percent of children. Half of the children affected outgrow the disorder by age 8, with only a very few cases persisting beyond age 12.
A night terror is different from a nightmare because nightmares are “experienced” while all consciousness seems to be absent from a night terror. According to Kids Health, an educational website of the Nemours Foundation, night terrors are alarming for parents, harmless for the child and not usually a cause for medical concern. (Adult onset of night terrors, however, can be associated with PTSD and can benefit from psychotherapy.)
Some children may go through a period of having night terrors for several weeks, then the terrors disappear for months, then they return for a while again. Other children may have only one episode ever without any return. Peak ages for night terrors seem to be age 1 and age 10. More than one episode a night seems unusual, but anything’s possible. Stress and being overtired are sometimes causes, though there is a genetic factor, too. This was corroborated in findings in a Canadian study which followed nearly 2,000 children from 1.5 to 2.5 years old until 13 years old through annual parent questionnaires. The analysis included whether one or both parents were childhood sleep walkers and or had night terrors.
A night terror usually occurs toward the end of the deepest sleep phase, typically about two hours after falling asleep. We know that sleep alternates between deep sleep for body repair and growth, and light sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, for dreaming. (The importance of dreaming for learning is only just beginning to be appreciated). Although the emotion of fright is what is observed during a night terror, the child is not aware of what’s happening. Children old enough to talk have no memory of what happened during a night terror when asked. There is no visual imagery or dream to remember.
One explanation for night terrors is that the immature nervous system “panics” as the brain transitions between the deepest sleep to a lighter REM sleep phase. And because the child is not dreaming at that time, the emotion is not interpreted nor stored by the brain in the way that the thoughts and emotions of nightmares can be.
Renowned parenting advisors Dr. William Sears and his wife Martha Sears, a nurse, describe the typical sleep patterns of babies, offering anthropological explanations for frequent night waking as well as parenting tips. In addressing night terrors specifically, the Sears recommendation is to comfort your child as you would anytime she is upset, and report a 90 percent success rate with interrupting the transition phase before it starts. To do this, note the typical time for your child’s first night terror, then set your alarm for 15 minutes prior. You will gently wake her up and keep her fully awake for at least 5 minutes. Then help her get back to sleep. Continue this pattern for one week and the timing of neurotransmitters that assist in bringing on the phases of deep and light sleep will “reset” for a smoother transition.
If this procedure sounds too difficult, help is on the horizon through alternative medicine. Experimentation with a naturally occurring amino acid has resulted in success for families suffering from night terrors. If this approach appeals to you, have a conversation with your child’s medical practitioner.
As with any of the assorted reasons that children’s sleep behaviors prevent them and their parents from getting adequate rest, families should avail themselves of naps and an occasional night off for Mom and Dad to get their much needed zzz’s.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com