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Night terrors: what are they and what can I do?

Night terrors are, as the name describes, quite terrifying for most parents. Your child may seem to wake up, cry, moan, thrash around or even scream. However, while your child’s eyes will be open while this is happening, he or she is not truly awake, and may not acknowledge your presence at all. Up to 40 percent of children under seven will have night terrors at some point, and according to experts, they’re nothing more than glitches in the brain’s normal sleep patterns. They usually start at toddler or preschooler stage, although they can begin earlier, and they can last for anything from a few minutes to three quarters of an hour!

After a night terror is over, your child will probably go to sleep immediately, and have no memory of the incident in the morning, unlike nightmares, where your child will be visibly scared and shaken by the event.

Nightmares also tend to happen when your child is fully asleep – during what is known as REM sleep, while night terrors happen in the non REM sleep, when your child is not dreaming, and they usually happen early on in the night.

Probably the worst part of a night terror for any parent is that your child will not respond to your efforts to comfort him or her. Aside from making sure that he or she does not hurt him or herself while thrashing around, there’s very little you can do to help. Don’t try to wake your child up, and if your child is sleeping in a ‘real’ bed rather than a cot, treat him or her as you would a sleepwalker, removing any potential hazards before you go to bed.

While night terrors are terrifying for most parents, they’re not dangerous for your child, nor do they indicate that your child has any trouble with brain function. They happen completely spontaneously, and usually stop just as suddenly. You may also find that they happen more frequently when your child has an interrupted or irregular sleep pattern, so you may want to look at changing his or her sleep habits.

Ensuring that your child does not suffer from sleep apnoea, and ruling out any other sleep problems, are about all you can do to prevent night terrors, and if none of those problems exist, simply trust that your child will outgrow the problem.

More questions

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