It is 11 PM. You have just settled into REM sleep after a long day. Suddenly your toddler wakes up screaming bloody murder. You stumble to his room to find him sitting up in his crib, eyes open, crying as if terrified by something unseen by you.
What's the Issue?
Night terrors are frustrating for parents. We all know what it is like when your infant wakes up in the dead of night for a feed and then won't resettle … at 3 AM, when you are at your lowest level of functioning as a parent. But now, your toddler should be a reasonable sleeper, and these night wakings take on a new flavor: scary, tiresome, and just plain yucky.
Consider the Numbers
Between 1 and 6 percent of all children have night terrors (also called sleep terrors), according to Rudolph's Fundamentals of Pediatrics—one of the "big three" doctors' textbooks. But one study in the journal Pediatrics showed that up to 40 percent of all children have at least one night terror by their sixth birthday. Also interesting about night terrors? They're more common in boys, and children who have night terrors often have other family members who have them as well.
What Parents Can Do
Understanding night terrors may make them seem a bit less freaky, and they can be most easily explained as being caught in between wakefulness and sleep. Think of it this way: The brain disconnects from the body during sleep. That is why—thankfully!—we don't all get out of bed and act out our dreams.
Parasomnias (medical talk for sleep disorders such as night terrors) are disturbances in which there is an incomplete disconnect, so to speak. Your child may be partially awake and able to generate some motor movement, but she is mostly asleep and thus oblivious to her surroundings. Children who experience night terrors don't remember what has happened the next day—just like kids (or adults) who talk or walk in their sleep.