Updated: Sep 13
By Jessica Berk, Awesome Little Sleepers
If your child has ever experienced a night terror, it can be truly terrifying. Your child awakens from a dead sleep in a panic - they may be thrashing around in their bed or even walking around, maybe crying and yelling disturbing things like “NO!” or “STOP!”. To a parent watching, it’s like something out of The Exorcist. But luckily, to the child, it’s similar to having a dream where they have no memory of it in the morning.
Like sleepwalking, night terrors are a type of parasomnia, an unusual physical event or experience that disrupts sleep. They tend to start around age four and fade away by age 12. The good news is that they’re pretty rare - only 3% to 6% of kids experience them.
There are two main things that differentiate a night terror from other reasons why kids wake overnight. First, is the time of night - most night terrors occur before midnight. Second, is the wakefulness of the child. With a true night terror, the child is asleep. They will not know if you come into the room; they will not recognize you or call your name. They are totally asleep.
Doctors don’t know exactly what triggers night terrors, and the occasional night terror is nothing to be worried about. You can try to prevent them by putting your child to bed a little earlier. There is some evidence to show that they happen more often in overtired kids. Night terrors typically occur around the same time each night. If you can identify the time, you can gently roll your sleeping child over or move them slightly without waking them up, just to jolt them out of their sleep cycle as a way to break the pattern.
During a night terror, as a parent, your only job is to keep your child safe and avoid waking them. This could mean moving items off shelves if they tend to walk around the room flailing their arms, and keeping the door closed so they can’t access stairs. It’s okay to be in the room with them while it’s happening, but don’t try to wake them up. And, unbelievably, in the blink of an eye, it will end, and they’ll be right back to sleep. And won’t remember anything in the morning. Be careful not to confuse a night terror with an overnight temper tantrum. Tantrums are much more common than night terrors but can also be confusing to parents.
Just because your child wakes up in the middle of the night and is inconsolable, does not mean it’s a night terror. How do you know the difference? With a tantrum, your child will be communicating with you. They will be calling your name, asking for something, reaching for you. Even if they’re confused and don’t know what they want, there will be some sort of interaction happening.
These overnight tantrums are *way* more common than night terrors. Tantrums are a behavioral-based sleep problem, not a medical one. The good news is that parents have the power to solve behavioral-based sleep problems.
The key to solving behavioral-based sleep problems is encouraging your child to be a solo sleeper - able to fall asleep all by themselves. When kids have an over-reliance on parents at bedtime, that causes lots of problems overnight. If your child is used to having you sit or lay with them at bedtime, they’re going to keep waking through the night to get you to come back. This causes a cycle of fragmented sleep, which leads to kids becoming overtired and very cranky and needy in the evening and overnight.
There are a variety of ways to encourage your kid’s solo sleep skills, and the most important part is involving your child in the process. The REST Method™, created by Jessica Berk, founder of Awesome Little Sleepers, was designed for kids over three years old. It provides night-by-night instructions for how to get your child to fall asleep easily by themselves and sleep 10-12 hours straight through the night with no wake-ups. Learn more about the REST Method and sign up for a Free Toddler Sleep Masterclass at www.AwesomeLittleSleepers.com
Photo by Mohamed Abdelghaffar