Witnessing a night terror can be more traumatic for a parent than it is for the child involved. You may hear a blood curdling scream and find your child sitting bolt upright in bed. He may stare right at you with wide open eyes, yet seem not to see you. In the morning, he won't be able to remember his night terror as he might have remembered a nightmare.
Night terrors affect a very small percentage (one to four percent) of children and young adolescents. They tend to happen earlier in the night than nightmares. Night terrors are most often triggered by sleep deprivation—a missed nap or delayed bedtime, for example.
Even though your child appears to be awake during a night terror episode, he is probably still asleep. "You won't be able to awaken your child, so don't try to," advises Dr. Barton Schmitt, MD, professor of Pediatrics at The Children's Hospital in Denver, Colorado, and author of the book Your Child's Health. "Turn on the light so that your child is less confused by shadows. Make soothing comments such as, 'You are all right. You are home in your own bed. You can rest now.' Speak calmly and repetitively."
If your child has frequent night terrors, Dr. Schmitt recommends that you try a repetitive waking technique. Write down the time your child goes to bed each night; then make a record of how many minutes elapse before the night terror begins. After a few nights, when you've figured out an average time, try waking up your child 15 minutes before the night terror usually starts. Keep him awake for five minutes. Repeat the pattern every night for about a week.
If the night terrors continue, consider making an appointment with your pediatrician. Chances are the terrors are a passing phase, but a meeting with your child's pediatrician can quell your concerns as well as catch any health issues that may be contributing to your child's problem.
Also, be sure to see the pediatrician if your child appears to be having a seizure (jerking or drooling) during a night terror, if the episodes last longer than 30 minutes, or if they continue for several weeks. Any of these signs could indicate a more serious problem.
You think your child is fast asleep in bed until you find her wandering through the kitchen in her nightgown. Her eyes are open, but she's not awake. She stares silently and blankly ahead as she opens and closes the refrigerator door.
As many as 15 percent of all children wander in their sleep. Most sleepwalking episodes occur one to two hours after the child falls asleep and last anywhere from one to 30 minutes. While sleepwalking, a child may do some of the same things she does during the day, such as get undressed or eat. No one knows what causes sleepwalking, but researchers believe it runs in families.
Your goal during a sleepwalking episode is to keep your child safe. Make sure your windows and doors are closed securely, and if your child's bedroom is on an upper floor, put gates at the top of all staircases. Remove any obstructions or dangerous objects from her path.
When you see your child sleepwalking, gently steer her back to her room (or to the bathroom if you think she might need to urinate). In a soothing voice, remind her that she is at home and that she is safe. As with night terrors, sleepwalking may be caused by a lack of sleep. Your child might need an extra nap during the day or an earlier bedtime.
Call your child's pediatrician if the episodes become frequent or if you think anxieties or fears might be contributing to the problem.
Nightmares, night terrors, and sleepwalking may seem frightening when they occur, but fortunately, they're usually fleeting. Most children outgrow these sleep disorders by the time they enter middle school.