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Night-Terrors

Night Terrors: Does your Child Scream & Cry in their Sleep?

If your child wakes up from their sleep, distressed and upset, their crying and screaming very possibly could be a sign they are having night terrors. Night terrors are very different to nightmares and should be treated in a different manner.

What are night terrors?

During an night terror, your child will be crying and screaming, they will appear to be awake but is unaware of your presence. The reason your child is unaware of your presence is that they are in the deep sleep state of the sleep cycle. This is how they differentiate from nightmares, which will wake your child because they are in the light sleep state of the sleep cycle.

During night terror, your child will show physical signs of distress such as sweating, rapid heart rate and possibly bulging eyes. This will be accompanied by your child screaming and probably will not fully wake up.

This is very distressing for you as a parent to witness and the sense of hopelessness as you try to comfort your child as your child may not respond because they are in a deep sleep. Your child may also strike out at you as you try to comfort. This is very distressing.

How long do night terrors last?

Night terrors can last up to thirty minutes and usually occur within the first part of the night ie 1-3 hours of your child falling asleep.

Why does my child appear to be awake?

During a sleep cycle, your child will go from drowsy, to light, to deep and then back to light sleep again. As your child ends the deep sleep cycle, one part of the brain begins to wake up while the other stays in deep sleep. This explains why your child appears awake but is still asleep.

Why does my child scream and cry?

Night Terror symptoms include rapid heart rate and sweating. Your child’s brain associates these symptoms with fear. Research concludes this may explain why your child screams and cries during an episode.

Night Terrors are not bad dreams and are seldom caused by psychological trauma. Most children return to sleep once an episode is over and have no recollection the next day. This is very reassuring for all parents!

So what causes night terrors?

Research indicates night terrors are very common in children who are over tired and who have abnormal schedules.

How can I help my child?

  • Encourage your child to have a day time nap, with the amount of naps correlating to age
  • Bring bedtime forward for your child
  • Avoid excessive stimulation prior bedtime such as television
  • During an episode the best thing you can do is hold your child and try to reassure him you are there
Fiona O’Farrell
Consultant Paediatric Occupational Therapist Specialising in Baby Sleep and Development
Validated by Department of Health
For one to one consultations contact www.fionaofarrell.ie

About the Author

Fiona O’Farrell is a Paediatric Occupational Therapist, specialising in baby development, premature babies and is an experienced sleep consultant, validated by the department of health. For information on workshops and sleep consultations visit fionaofarrell.ie or Facebook. Call Fiona on 0879144323

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