She sleeps like an angel. Her blond hair covering her face, her big blue eyes gently closed. She is so tranquil and so very beautiful, far cry from the bundle of energy she is during the day. Watching her sleep warms my heart.
The peace is short lived. It begins as a whimper. I hear it and a feeling of dread creeps into my heart. Should I go comfort her? Will she fall back asleep if I do? Or will I just wake her more? I hesitate for a moment, unsure what to do. Then I realise that she is at the point of no return, she will not fall back asleep on her own. I’m still unsure, deep down I know but I still pray it isn’t the case. I go to her bed and she comes to me, but as soon as I wrap my arms around her I realise.
She is not soothed by my presence as she should be, on the contrary, it excites her more. She pushes me away, at first yelling, but slowly her voice rises to a scream…a piercing scream. Her eyes are wide open, a look of horror on her face. She looks startled and confused. I don’t know what to do. The more I try to hold her the more afraid she becomes. The more I try to understand her the more she pushes me away. She stiffens her body, every muscle tensing up. I can’t hold her, I can’t comfort her – I am powerless.
I sit there stroking her beautiful blond hair as she screams out “MUMMMYYYYY”, “NOOOOOOO”. I want nothing more than to comfort her. What is she so afraid of? What is she saying “NOO” about? What does she dream that is frightening her so? She pushes me away again, I don’t know what to do. Maybe I’m scaring her? Maybe she’ll sleep better without me? I get up….”NOOOOOOOOOOO” she pulls me in near to her again and tightly wraps her arms around my neck, only to push me away again. I’m desperate to know what she wants, to know how I can help her, but from experience, I know that this is not possible. All that is left is to try my best to comfort her. I know it’s not good enough, but that’s all I can do.
Eventually, she wears herself out. Her screams slowly quieten down till they are nothing more than a quiet moan, and then eventually nothing. Every now and then she still lets out a sigh until she is fast asleep. I lay there for a while, exhausted and relieved. Afraid to get up prematurely and squashed in her tiny bed. Finally, I slowly remove her hands from me and when she does not move I know it is safe. I quietly raise myself up and walk away, thankfully she is still asleep. I look back, she is my beautiful angel again.
Many years ago my daughter was one of the 10-15% of children who suffers from night terrors. This episode was played out in our home on a regular basis. Initially, I didn’t think much of it until as it wasn’t unusual for her to have periods of waking and distress throughout the night. It wasn’t till I mentioned it to my maternal child health nurse at the time that she casually said: “that would be a night terror”. There is nothing casual about it! It’s so horrible to see your child so scared and confused like that, especially when there is nothing you can do to make it better.
I had initially learnt about night terrors years earlier as a psychology student at university. I had naively thought of it as something that happened to other people, to other people’s children – not to my baby. Contrary to what every parent who faces this feels, night terrors are actually a normal part of the normal range of development of deep sleep patterns and apart from immediate distress they bring they are nothing to be concerned about.
Night terrors occur when children partially wake from a state of deep non-REM sleep. During these episodes a child’s mind is asleep, but their body is awake. Often, as was the case with my daughter, their eyes are open and they are talking (or more often the case screaming), leaving parents such as myself very confused.
Perhaps the most difficult part of witnessing these episodes is that there is very little that you can do as a parent. Since the child is not awake any effort to comfort them should be gentle as waking them is counterproductive, often just confusing the child and aggravating the situation. The best thing to do is to gently comfort the child, making sure that they are safe and not in danger of hurting themselves until the episode subsides, at which point they are likely to fall back into a deep sleep fairly quickly.
For the most part night terrors are just a phase that some children pass through and often there is nothing you can do about it. But there are a couple of things that you can try. Firstly, do your best to ensure that your child is sleeping enough. Having a good bedtime routine and regular sleep times can help if this is an issue. If this doesn’t work or if your child already sleeps well you can try ‘scheduled awakening’. Night terrors usually occur round about the same time every night, if you wake your child half an hour or so before it is due to occur, it may reset their sleep cycle, and by doing so hopefully avoid the night terror.
If these attempts do not help do not hesitate to seek further assistance from your doctor. Especially if the night terrors are violent and you feel that your child may injure themselves, that the night terrors are happening frequently and significantly impacting on the families sleep, or if your child is very sleepy during the day.
It’s been over 10 years now since we last experienced night terrors, but once you’ve gone through it you never forget the feelings of powerlessness and helplessness in the face of their anguish. As with all phases it eventually passes and one day you wake up and breathe a sigh of relief with the realisation that night terrors are no longer a part of your life. But the experience of being unable to comfort your child is one that rears its head time and time again, after all, life is full of hurt and disappointment. Sometimes all you can do is gently hold them knowing that you can’t do or say anything that will make things better. And as with night terrors, sometimes, despite all the will in the world to make things less painful, all you can do is be there for them and wait for them to feel better on their own.