What Are Night Terrors?


Like most parents, I have comforted my children after the occasional nightmare. But recently, when my five-year-old daughter has shouted in the night, I've gone in to find her sitting bolt upright in bed, thrashing her arms around and screaming.

Her eyes are open but she doesn't recognise me. I can't seem to wake her up and I can't seem to soothe her. Then suddenly, without warning, she just falls back to sleep.

Night terrors, as they are known, are only estimated to effect up to six per cent of children. But if you're the parent to one of them, it can be alarming. Whilst my daughter remembers nothing about them in the morning, I'm left feeling distressed and worried that it will happen again the next night.

Julie Borland knows how I feel: "My four-year-old son sits up in bed, screaming loudly for minutes at a time. The neighbours must think we are torturing him. He seems to be completely unaware we're even there, even when we hug him. It's like it's not really him and it's horrible."

Like Julie, I get conflicting advice about what to do. Some friends advise abruptly waking the child up to snap them out of it. But this freaks my daughter out. Others tell me to rub her back softly, but this can often seem futile. Then there are those who conclude that such a dramatic presentation must surely be a sign of a deeper medical issue.

Dr Dev Banerjee, consultant respiratory and sleep physician at BMI Priory Hospital in Birmingham, reassures me that night terrors - which usually last between two and 15 minutes - are normal, particularly among children aged three to eight.

"Verbal reassurance is the key," he insists. Don't wake them or hug them as both can make them wilder, he says. Nor should you expect your attempts to comfort them to be welcomed. Just talk calmly and wait.

He adds that parents should never focus on night terrors in front of their child because they never have any recollection of them. "If parents say, 'Don't worry, there are no bogeymen in your bedroom' or 'Mummy will be here if you have bad dreams tonight', that can lead to sleep initiation concerns and then you're into a whole new set of sleep problems," he explains.

If the terror attacks are frequent and occur at the same time each night, you might find that waking your child breaks the cycle, he adds. "Because night terrors occur in the first third of the night, this shouldn't be too hard. Simply wake your child up for the loo 15 minutes before the anticipated time of the attack each night for a week."

There are other preventative measures, says Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep coach at Capio Nightingale Hospital: "There is evidence that night terrors can result from being overtired, so creating a bedtime schedule is important. You should also make an extra effort to ensure the child is truly relaxed, and never over stimulated, before they go to bed. The safer and calmer the child feels, the better. And because children with vivid imaginations seem to be more prone to night terrors, it can pay to find extra outlets for that creativity during the day - art, singing and drama can all help."

For some parents, sleep workshops help. "Because night terrors are linked to children who are sleep deprived, our workshops focus on giving parents an introduction to the sleep cycle and then we use that to explore why children may not be sleeping well," says Vicki Ramsden, founder of The Children's Sleep Centre.

"Sometimes it's as simple as avoiding bright bedding, which doesn't make bed a restful place to be. Sometimes it's a case of explaining that the special lights aimed at helping help children sleep may indeed help them get to sleep, but then disrupt the next stage of the sleep cycle. Many parents who have been trying various solutions for years say the problem is solved within a fortnight when they come to us."

Just changing her child's sheets solved the problem for Jo Fletcher. "I was at my wit's end with my son's night terrors. They started when he was three and progressively got worse. Our GP surgery said there was nothing we could do," she says.

But then Jo noticed that Lewis was very hot and sweaty whenever he had the terrors. "So I changed his bedding to Dermotherapy Bedding – dermatological sheets that wipe away sweat, so helping to control body temperature. Suddenly the terrors stopped and to this day, they've never returned." Many other parents have reported similar outcomes with this bedding.

Dr Banerjee says that besides sleep deprivation, genetics can be a cause of sleep terrors. "We know that children suffering from them often have parents who have a history of sleep walking or night terrors," he says.

As for my own daughter, I've been trying it all. I've got the sheets, I've learned about sleep cycles and I've worked even harder on restful bedtimes. It's hard to say which is responsible, if any, but two weeks in, I can tentatively report that our home has become a night terror free zone.

And even if the attacks do return, research reassures me that the vast majority of children grow out of them.

Does your child suffer from night terrors? How did you soothe them?