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Waking up to a horror movie scream

January 29, 2012
By LESLIE LETUSICK - Copy editor ( , The Herald-Star

There is nothing more terrifying than waking up during the night to your child screaming and crying. Every thought flashes into your head. Is he sick? Is he hurt? Or the worst scenario imaginable, is there a stranger in the house?

The sight of the screaming, crying and thrashing isn't much better. It doesn't help ease your mind or thoughts. Is there something wrong with my child?

We have since come to learn that he is having night terrors.

According to Kids Health, "a night terror is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare, but with a far more dramatic presentation. Though night terrors can be alarming for parents who witness them, they're not usually cause for concern or a sign of a deeper medical issue." Alarming? Try terrifying.

My son has experienced several of these over the past year, the most recent being on New Year's Eve. He is inconsolable. He throws himself around. He has almost collided with his nightstand I don't know how many times. Immediately, the concern becomes for his safety. As I try to keep him from harming himself, I find myself crying. Fear and worry have taken control. All logic and reasonable thoughts are out the window. I am in "mom mode."

The first night terror Little Man had was the most terrifying because I didn't know what it was. My husband and I feared that it may be a seizure or even something else was in control of his body. We even questioned our faith. Why would anyone let that happen to a child? Especially on Christmas Eve when it occurred not once, but twice. But, once we figured out what it was, our fears or worries eased, a little. I have spoken to the doctor, and he told me there is nothing I can do to help or prevent the night terrors. However, I took it upon myself to look further into night terrors, if nothing else, for my own peace of mind.

Night terrors have often been confused with nightmares. However, nightmares occur during REM sleep, while the night terrors occur during deep nonREM sleep. It is a sudden reaction of fear that happens during the transition from the nonREM to REM sleep phases. They usually occur a few hours after a child falls asleep. Most of the time the transition between sleep phases is smooth, but sometimes, a child becomes agitated and frightened. This is what is called a night terror.

What happens during a night terror? A child might suddenly sit upright in bed and let out a "blood curdling scream." His or her breathing and heartbeat might be faster. They might sweat, thrash around and act upset and scared. Your very own son or daughter may not recognize you. After a while (normally they last between five and 30 minutes, but that can vary), a child simply calms down and returns to sleep. They often won't remember what happened the next day.

Night terrors can be caused by an over-arousal of the central nervous system during sleep. This can happen because the nervous system is maturing. Some children may inherit a tendency for over-arousal (about 80 percent who have night terrors have a family member who also experienced them or sleepwalking.)

Night terrors have been noted in kids who are overtired or ill; stressed or fatigued; taking a new medicine; or sleeping in a new environment or away from home. They happen in 3 percent to 6 percent of children and generally occur between the ages of 2 and 6, but they can occur at almost any age and are more common among boys. A child might have a single night terror or several. Most of the time, they disappear as mysteriously as they appeared.

Experts say that the best way to handle a night terror is to wait it out and make sure the child doesn't hurt himself. According to NBC's "The Doctors," it's best not to try to wake kids during a night terror. These attempts usually don't work anyway, but if the child does wake up, he or she may be disoriented and confused. In either case, calm the child and help him or her return to sleep.

According to an article in Kids Health, there is no treatment for night terrors, but you can help prevent them by reducing your child's stress; keeping a strict bedtime routine; making sure the child rests enough; keeping the child from becoming overtired; and, if they happen quite frequently, try waking them up just before the time they occur (this will throw off the sleep pattern).

If you have a child who suffers from night terrors as I do, here are a few things you need to know. Night terrors are also known as sleep terrors or pavor nocturnus. They usually occur in the first four hours after going to sleep. Make sure caregivers and babysitters are aware of the night terrors. And thankfully, most children outgrow them as they age.

Now that we understand night terrors a little better, it does help us get a good (well, better) night's sleep. Here's to hoping my son will grow out of it - and soon. (Fingers crossed.)

(Letusick, a resident of Rayland, is a copy editor for the Herald-Star and The Weirton Daily Times.)

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