How to beat night terrors

Is your child experiencing night terrors?
Is your child experiencing night terrors? 

Night terrors can start after children turn two.

Sometimes we are visited by The Koala Who Eats People's Feet. On other occasions, our household has been graced by Dinosaurs In The Driveway and Gorillas In The Blinds. They sound like B-grade horror flicks and, in many respects, are similar: there's screaming and people running around in the dark.

Children will wake from nightmares and, if they have the language skills, be able to tell you about the dream. But how much should you discuss in the wee hours?

Welcome to our nightmares. I say ours because while the actual "scary dreams" belong to my four-year-old son, Joseph, the repercussions are felt by every member of the family. When your child wakes up night after night screaming, chances are no one is getting much sleep.

Julie Morsley, an educational psychologist, can relate. Her younger son, Sam, has gone "from being a perfect sleeper" to waking up every night screaming for no apparent reason, for three months. "We're waking four or five times a night," she says.

Sam is 2, the prime age, experts say, for night terrors. "Night terrors start a little after [the age of] two and affect about 5 per cent of children," says Dr Jill Sewell, a paediatrician and deputy director of the Centre For Community Child Health at the Royal Children's Hospital in Melbourne. "It's very difficult to settle the child, and the child does not remember the dream the next day."

Night terrors and nightmares - while both presenting as similarly noisy and sleep-depriving - are two different things. Night terrors tend to occur in the early part of the night when the child is in a deep sleep phase - much like a sleep walker. The child may appear awake but is really asleep (and hence difficult to settle). Nightmares happen in the early hours of the morning, in the lighter REM sleep phase.

"Nightmares are common between two and adolescence," says Robin Barker, the author of Baby Love. "Fifty per cent of five-year-olds have regular nightmares. There's usually no obvious cause and no one to blame, but their development contributes hugely to it. Other factors might include new experiences, illness, things they see on television."

"There's no underlying medical condition that's associated with nightmares or night terrors," says Sewell. "But it's important to monitor what they're watching on TV."

Children will wake from nightmares and, if they have the language skills, be able to tell you about the dream. But how much should you discuss in the wee hours when all you want is to get everyone back to sleep?

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"The best time to talk about it is as soon as it's occurred," says Kimberley O'Brien, a child and adolescent psychologist at the Quirky Kid Clinic in Woollahra. "Turn on the lights, have a warm milk and ask the details. It will help the child express the trauma. Ideally, try to find something funny about it."

Humour often escapes me at 3am but I have tried everything else. In the early days, when finding Joseph lying terrified in his bed brought sympathy and worry instead of irritation, I consulted the internet and found encouragement to "embrace this evidence" of my child's "vivid imagination".

I gave Joe mantras to repeat should the koala/dinosaur/gorilla show up - along the lines of "Out koala/dinosaur/gorilla". I bought him a nightlight and a torch and one of those headlights that campers use. I put him to bed with a menagerie of stuffed animals. I hung a sheet from the top bunk to form a "cubby" in which he could be safe. And still the nightmares continued, which made me wonder - at what point do I really start to worry about this?

"It's common to have nightmares over months, or even a year or two," says Sewell. "If you're coping with it and the child is not showing other symptoms of anxiety during the day, try to remember it's just a developmental phase. If it's associated with anxiety symptoms in the child, or you're feeling overwhelmed, then seek professional help."

In the end, I did seek help. I called Gran. On her advice, I bought a water spray bottle and disappeared into the kitchen with much fanfare and Gran's Secret Scary Dream Spray recipe (water, lavender oil), emerging triumphantly with a full bottle. We sprayed the potion, guaranteed to keep the scary dreams at bay, all over the room. The result: our first full night's sleep in three months.

"I recommend a ritual for bedtime," says O'Brien. "Relaxation is the main thing to focus on. A long, hot bath, brush their hair, relax them physically - have them lie on the floor and be a starfish."

She recommends a lot of sport in the afternoon to tire them. And not to let things get out of hand. "If you suspect there's no underlying anxiety and it [is] a behavioural issue - they decide they need mum lying next to them to go to sleep - then call them on it," she says. "Wean them off slowly."

Fiona McNulty, from Newtown, has found that the best way she can help her 20-month-old daughter Mathilde when she is having a night terror is to sit next to her cot and reassure her quietly over and over that she is OK.

"She's flipping around, screaming and bucking to the point of hysteria, and the more I try to touch her, the worse it gets," says McNulty.

"There's not much you can do with night terrors," agrees Sewell. "If it happens at the same time every night, we have found that waking them about half an hour beforehand and then putting them back to sleep can interrupt the sleep cycle just enough that they don't go into that phase where a terror is most likely.

"It doesn't work with every child, but it's worth a try."

Discuss sleeping issues in our dedicated Sleeping forum.