Night terrors falls into a spectrum of sleep related disorders including sleep paralysis, sleep walking and narcolepsy. it is debatable whever these events are actually diseases or disorders or rather just unusual sleep related events. Whatever the truth is it can be very stressful to have a child who regularly experiences night terrors
A narcoleptic simply falls asleep without warning during normal activities. Something just switches off in their brain and instantly they are out like a light.The “switch” which controls sleeping and waking is very interesting. During normal sleep the brain works so that the body is prevented from moving more than minimally and therefore it is presumably less likely to come to harm whilst the brain, its minder, is taking a rest. During REM sleep the eyes move and the body may toss and turn somewhat.
Sometimes sleepwalking occurs and surprisingly the sleepwalker often avoids injury somehow. Night terrors appears like a combination of a nightmare and sleepwalking. The child’s body arises from sleep but the mind is not awake and is experiencing a bad dream. The child’s eyes may be open but there is no-body home or at least not the child you are used to. This can happen in the worst case scenario several times a day!
The difference between a bad dream or nightmare and night terrors is that a child will not remember anything at all about a terror but they will remember and be able to describe the contents of a dream. Because they do not remember the event it does no good to remonstrate with them about their behaviour and discussing it may even make them worried about falling asleep.
This state can be brief or last longer. I have observed this state last up to forty minutes in one of my children.The child appears to an outsider to be having a tantrum, but there is no reason for it. They have just awoken from sleep and should be rested and in a good mood you would think. Trying to console, distract or chastise the child simply does not work. They are not awake even though their body is moving. They do not recognise people during this state., They may speak but do not respond or converse. The best that can be done is to physically restrain the child if necessary and prevent it from harming itself or others.
The condition of sleep paralysis is the reverse. The mind is awake and the eyes can move and the person can see, but the body is still sleeping and therefore immobilized. This is a very frightening state in which to wake and not many people experience it. If it happens often one can get used to it and even find it interesting. The full practice of Yoga Nidra is built around this phenomenon. The practitioner practises passing consciously from waking to lucid dreaming state, and back the other way. Normally we do not have control over such processes, we simply pass from waking to sleeping and from sleeping to waking without incident, however there are variations to this process and night terrors is one of them.
Not many children have this condition so if it occurs in public it can be embarrassing. People who do not understand can be very intolerant and judgmental, and it can be very hard to explain to a stranger what is happening with a screaming child in your arms. Especially hard to deal with are those self righteous child-free couples with no experience of children and often an active dislike of children. Most of them can look down their noses at you as if you are the worst parent in the world and have no right to be anywhere on their planet with your disgusting out of control child.
On chat rooms I have even seen the Childfree indicate that if your child behaves so, you should not leave the house and inconvenience others. It can occur that this condition does entrap you in the house for fear that your child will have an episode in public and make you look incompetent and inconsiderate of others. The condition can lead you to decline offers of child minding from friends for fear they will not be able to cope with your child if they waken in the state of terror. Even leaving the child with close family is sometimes not possible because they may question your parenting or dispute the condition and insist the problem is caused by spoiling the child and indicate such behaviour should be dealt with by methods of physical punishment.
You may be reluctant to have your child accept invitations to sleep over at a friend’s house for fear of an episode of terrors. The episodes decrease in frequency with age but the condition can persist for some time. My daughter had her last recorded episode when she was eleven.
Night terrors is common on waking from afternoon sleep, and also within a couple of hours of being put to bed in the evening the child often awakes screaming. From my experience it is not such a common event in the morning. Early morning hours and morning awakening is the more common time for ‘bad dreams’.
Making sure the child does not drink too much before bedtime and goes to the toilet properly before bed seems to help reduce the number of events but is not a reliable preventative measure. Also putting the child on the toilet sometimes terminates the attack, even if the child does not need to urinate.
If you are dealing with this condition and feeling alone and misunderstood there is now plenty of understanding to be had on discussion boards relating to this topic. If you are interested in other sleep ‘malfunctions’ you might like to refer to the bottom of page 153 of Napoleon Hill’s classic,Think and Grow Rich where he clearly describes his experiences with sleep paralysis and how he dealt with having that condition. He even suggests that his ability to experience such things and to apparently dream while awake, was part of the reason for his phenomenal success.
Be assured that this distressing condition will get better with time and your child still loves you.