A few months ago, when J was away, the children had been in bed for a few hours, when I heard the familiar sound of my eldest (K) moving around and chatting to herself. I went into her room, to find her sitting looking at the doorway. I walked over to say goodnight and tuck her in again when she asked, “Who’s that lady?”
“What lady?’ I replied.
“The lady standing over there by the door.” She said, pointing to where I had just come.
Even though I was used to this now, I still shuddered and turned to look, and, seeing nothing there, turned back to my daughter who was now back under the covers with eyes closed. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well that night!!
The night terrors started when K, at 2 ½, first started to wake in the night, screaming, shouting and crying, while wandering around the house looking genuinely terrified, it was more than a little worrying. During these episodes, she would act as if I wasn’t there, literally looking straight through me, and did not respond to any sort of comforting. We would try to cuddle her, she would stay stiff and if anything, push away. Her eyes were open but she had a look that wasn’t hers, almost a different child. I can understand how, years ago, people may have thought this was some sort of demon and that a child had been possessed!!
At first I thought she was having bad dreams and immediately considered anything going on in her life, that I maybe hadn’t been made aware of, as she was in child-care a couple of days /week. Nothing came up, and she seemed blissfully unaware of waking, remaining a happy, cheeky and very active toddler.
Initially, these episodes happened once or twice a fortnight, but over a couple of months, they became more frequent and from the age of 3 to 6, she would have them most nights. However, you could generally set your watch by them and luckily for us, they rarely happened after midnight. I have heard stories of children being up 4-5 times a night!
At this point, we were really beginning to worry about what was causing this. I questioned her as much as I could, thinking every mother’s worst nightmare of some sort of abuse happening in her life, but nothing made sense. I talked to friends with children, but no one had experienced the same. It was the ‘not wanting to be comforted’ and ‘looking straight through you’ that no one could sympathize with. Then, a friend gave me a book about children and sleep, which documented exactly what we were going through.
Alleluia!! At last I could understand this condition, and I could put to rest any worries, that something was wrong. This is what I learnt:
- Children go into a deeper level of sleep than we do as adults (lucky things!)
- The transition into this level of sleep happens between 1½- 2 hours after falling asleep
- It is at the transition stage that some children can be triggered into having a ‘night terror’ by anything that may disturb them. However, my experience is that no trigger was needed!
- They usually grow out of it at around 5 years of age
It was at this point that we began to build strategies to best deal with her while she was ‘night terroring’. Lou was born just after all of this started, so we had to consider her in all of this as well!
Night terror Strategies:
- Watch but try not to interfere – This is really hard but I found that when I tried to cuddle her, she got more irritated.
- Do not wake them up- She could take hours to settle if she was woken during an episode. I could tell immediately if she woke, as she became ‘her’ again, her eyes changed, she cuddled, but was extremely distressed.
- Talk in a calming voice with low volume, even if they are screaming. I think that subliminally, hearing a familiar, comforting voice, helps to calm the situation.
- I repeated phrases like ‘it’s alright’ ‘mummy’s here’ etc. Sometimes I sang her favorite nursery rhymes. I’m not sure how much this helped, but I couldn’t stand there and do nothing!
- Once calmed, try to guide back to bed. Sometimes she would just sit bolt upright but stay in bed, other times, she would lead us on a merry dance around the house!
- The big yawn would always signify that it was over!
Gradually, the screaming became less frequent and we could understand some of what she said, during a night terror. The majority of this was nonsense but as she has gotten older, we have had full conversations with her, in her sleep. Up until the age of about 6 she would still appear frightened of something. At around 6½ things had really settled down and we had a good 8-10 months of no terrors. Then, her appendix burst (a traumatic experience I may share with you in the future, as we were on holiday at the time and she was undiagnosed for a week!!) causing her to need a full laparotomy, twice. During her illness and recovery, she began to suffer with the night terrors again.
Two and a half years on, the major terrors are far less frequent and generally signify stress, illness and tiredness. It is however, very common to hear her chatting away in the middle of the night.
“Mum, mum, help me, you need to help!” she says, crawling around her bedroom floor.
“What’s the matter, have you lost something?” I kneel down next to her.
“We need to save my toys from the giant snails!”
Here we go again!………………..
Does your child suffer with night terrors or something similar? What works best for you when dealing with them? Does something in particular seem to trigger them?