In her latest guest blog, sleep consultant Kate Johnson discusses a subject that has been raised a lot recently by Mumbler parents: night terrors and ways we can support children experiencing them.
As lockdown continues routines will have altered for most of us. This may mean some unsettled nights for our little ones, including night terrors. Night terrors are also known as Parasomnias and can present in different ways depending on each child and each episode. Sometimes, children will sit up in bed and will be unresponsive, whereas other times children may scream and kick – unresponsive to any sort of comfort.
Many parents understandably get very worried about night terrors, and this can be quite a distressing thing to witness.
There are a few things that can contribute to night terrors occurring in children, and two of the most common reasons for night terrors are over tiredness and overheating. We also see night terrors in children who have had a change in routine (most of us at the moment) and they can also be a result of an underlying medical condition like asthma, reflux, eczema or even if you have a child who is prone to snoring.
Firstly, it is important to understand the difference between a night terror and a nightmare so that you can distinguish between the two and respond appropriately.
Night terrors generally occur in the first part of the night and fall within the Non-REM stage of sleep. Your child will not know they have had a night terror and they can last anywhere between 5-15 minutes before your little one progresses into the next sleep stage. It will be difficult to comfort your little ones during a night terror as they are in the deep sleep stage.
In contrast, a nightmare occurs in the REM (dreaming) stage of sleep, usually in the second half of the night, and many children will be able to remember what they were dreaming about and can fully wake up as a result of the nightmare and will respond to comfort.
Once you have established whether your little one is having night terrors or nightmares, you can manage the situation better.
Some key tips for managing night terrors are below,
Make sure that your child’s bedroom is safe. If your child is likely to get up and walk around, then ensuring there are no hazards is key. This could include moving bedside tables or putting stair gates on the door.
Avoid waking them up and just guide them back to bed, or lay them back down. It is a myth that it is dangerous to wake a child experiencing a night terror – it will probably just be quite difficult as they are in a deep sleep!
Ensure you are providing your child with a predictable bedtime routine and that you have addressed other behavioural issues around bedtime like bedtime refusal as this will result in an overtired child. Pre-school children are very likely to have night terrors when they drop their day time nap, it is wise to bring their bedtime forwards to help provide them with a bit more night time sleep.
Establish the time in which the night terror occurs. If you are finding your child has a night terror around the same time each night, then it is possible to schedule an awakening before the episode. This is where you go into their room 15-30 minutes before the usual awakening and gently rouse them by rubbing their feet or stroking their cheek. The idea is that this resets their sleep cycle and after 4-5 nights of ‘waking to sleep’ you should have cut out this habitual wake up.
Make sure your child is dressed correctly for the temperature of their room so that they don’t overheat.