Your child shouts in the night, waking you. When you rush in, you find her sitting bolt upright in bed, thrashing her arms and screaming. Her eyes are open but she doesn’t recognise you. You can’t seem to wake her up and you can’t seem to soothe her. Then suddenly, without warning, she just falls back to sleep. In the morning your child remembers nothing, but you’re left distressed and anxious that it will happen again the following night.
Night terrors, as they are known, are estimated to affect up to six per cent of children.
Sleep expert Dr Dev Banerjee says that night terrors - which usually last between two and 15 minutes - are normal, particularly among toddlers. Most children will have grown out of night terrors by the age of 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, a sleep and stress expert: “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 overstimulated, 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 Dawson, founder of The Children’s Sleep Charity.
“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.”
Dr Banerjee says that genetics may also play a role in night terrors. “We know that children suffering from them often have parents who have a history of sleepwalking or night terrors,” he says.
The good news is that research shows that the vast majority of children grow out of night terrors.