What You Don't Know About Night Terrors Could Scare The Heck Out of You

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He shoots up with panic in his eyes, and asks me desperately "Mama what?"

My son has night terrors. He's had night terrors ever since he was very little. My son has a lot of things that don't fit into a nice little tiny box wrapped up with a bow.

We began seeing a neurologist for my son's tic disorder when he was 4. I remember wondering out loud at the time about what was happening to my son at bedtime. This was the routine:

He would go to sleep at 7:30 and sometime around 8:15 he would sit straight up in bed whimpering and rocking. Sometimes talking nonsense sentences.

Sometimes his fear would take him on a search around the house for some unknown intruder or assailant.

Sometimes that intruder or assailant would be out the window.

Never once were his words clear.

I made the mistake when he was younger of trying to talk to him when this was happening. All I got back was nonsense.

"Mommy, mommy, what? What?"
"Mommy, mommy, where?"
"Over there mommy, over there, over there."
Insistent, determined.
I would ask:
"What baby?"
"Where baby?"
"What do you see?"

All I got was the same questions repeated over and over again, sometimes more insistent. Sometimes the fear in his voice was almost too much to bear. Sometimes he would cry.

You cannot wake up a child who is having a night terror. A night terror is not a nightmare. A night terror only happens during one specific time of sleep: non-REM sleep.

bed

Image: David Noah1 via Flickr

During non-REM sleep you are not dreaming. I repeat, this is the cycle of sleep where there are no dreams. This is also the period of sleep where your limbs are not paralyzed as they are during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. This cycle of non-REM sleep always occurs as part of the first hour of sleep. For us, it is always 45 minutes on the dot.

This is not a nightmare because it occurs only during the period of sleep when you are not dreaming.

You cannot comfort a child who is having a night terror, during a night terror the child is completely unaware of his surroundings. However, you should stay with them. Keep them safe. Night terrors and sleepwalking often go hand in hand.

Isaiah often has episodes where he is insistent that someone is out in the living room, I follow him there, but I am only a guide, he is not aware of my presence. I can gently steer him where I need him to go, but if I force him to abandon his explorations too soon he will get right out of bed and go look again.

Children do not remember night terrors in the morning. So many times I would ask Isaiah, "So sweetie, do you remember what happened last night?" He would look at me with a blank stare.

Eventually I consoled myself by researching and understanding that 1-6% of all children have true night terrors, and that they tend to grow out of it. It is hereditary and another form of sleepwalking. And although it scared the heck out of me, he didn't remember it, he wasn't upset, so why should I be so scared for him?

Tonight Isaiah had a night terror, he hasn't had one in months. It is different from when he wakes up to go to the bathroom. When he has to go to the bathroom he is sleepy, sits up slowly and he rocks back and forth. Tonight it was different. Tonight he shot up whimpering, "Mama what? Mama what?"

"Do you have to go to the bathroom?"

"Ok, OK."

"Come on baby, come on." I try to lead him off of the bed, but he is clumsy like he doesn't know the direction he is going in. When he finally get's off of the bed he starts walking towards the wrong door. I have learned it's better to steer him with his shoulders.

When he gets to the bathroom he pulls his pants down, and then turns around the wrong direction again. He is still murmuring, "What? What mama?"

"Come on sweetie." I guide him to the toilet, he sits down.

When he gets back up again, he pulls his pants up, then pulls them down, then pulls them up, then pulls them down. I finally have to take his hands away and do it myself. Still he is asking, "Mama what?"

If you were there, you would swear he was hearing me say something, something he can't understand. He is desperately asking me to clarify a question I never asked. This exchange used to break my heart. Now I have replaced that fear with love and empathy.

I tell him, "You're OK baby, You're OK." Repeating it over and over. A soothing mantra that I hope reaches him somewhere. As we head back to bed, he once again starts for the outside door. I steer him, with some difficulty, back to the bed. He is still murmuring. I guide him up and he curls into a ball, I cover him gently all nice and cozy. He is still making small sounds so I rub his back. He quiets, but we have been there before, if I stop too soon he will only get up again. I wait, and rub for 10 minutes more, just to be safe. His breathing slows, he is sleeping deeply again, and I know he won't be up until morning.

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