A scream in the night: night terrors

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RBC I A parent is awakened in the night by horrific screaming from their child. For any parent this can be a scary, awful occurrence in which they feel helpless. According to www.kidshealth.org, it is estimated that 3 to 6 percent of children will experience night terrors. While night terrors can happen at any age, most occur between 2-6 years of age, with peak onset at 3-1/2 years old.
During a night terror, children may bolt upright, eyes wide open in panic or terror, with bloodcurdling screams. Children often experience sweating, rapid breathing, and an increased heart rate. Most terrors last only a few minutes, however they can last more than 30 minutes. Night terrors vary from nightmares in that children having nightmares are usually easily woken and comforted. Children may also be able to recall events or feelings from a nightmare, whereas there is no memory of a night terror.
While it may be incredibly difficult as a parent to see your child experiencing these terrors, the best course of action is to make sure this child is safe in his/her bed—decreasing the likelihood of harm or injury. It may appear that the child is awake, however, he or she is not and waking the child is not recommended. The child is more likely to be disoriented and confused, or become scared as a reaction to the parent’s anxiety.
Night terrors are similar to sleepwalking or sleep-talking, caused by over-arousal of the Central Nervous System (CNS) during sleep, and may occur because this regulatory system of brain activity is still developing. Sleep is divided into two categories: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM). Night terrors happen during deep non-REM sleep. Unlike nightmares (which occur during REM sleep), a night terror is not technically a dream, but more like a sudden reaction of fear that happens during the transition from one sleep phase to another.
While there is no specific treatment necessary, there are steps parents can take to lessen the chances of night terrors. The typical night terror occurs approximately 1-4 hours after falling asleep (nightmares occur later in the sleep cycle). If night terrors are happening at a more frequent rate parents can track their occurrence and wake the child up 15 minutes prior to the expected night terror, keeping them awake and out of bed for a few minutes, even trying to go to the bathroom. Night terrors may also be the result of stressful life events, fever, medications or lack of proper sleep.
Maintaining a consistent bedtime and wake up routine is essential for all children. Children are often unable to estimate their sleepiness, believing they are getting enough sleep even when they are not. When a child is not getting an ample amount of sleep, behavior, learning ability and overall performance are affected, as well as night terrors.
The National Sleep Foundation has the following recommendations for amount of sleep based on age:
n Toddlers (age 1-3): 12-14 hours in a 24-hour period (naps count)
n Preschoolers (ages 3-5): 11-13 hours
n School aged Children (ages 5-12): 10-11 hours
n Teenagers (13+): 9-10 hours
The good news is that night terrors do not seem to have any harmful effects on kids who have them, and are usually outgrown. However if a child seems to be experiencing night terrors and the aforementioned strategies do not seem to help, an evaluation by the child’s pediatrician may be useful to rule out other possible disorders that might be having an effect on their quality of sleep.
An additional resource is the 2012 Rio Blanco Children’s Health Fair, offering free screening in multiple areas of child development, Feb 27-28 in Meeker and March 5-6 in Rangely. Call 970-675-2064 to schedule your appointment today.

Kristen Anderson is a MSW school social worker and Katelyn Collins is a BA school psychologist intern.