Bumps in the night

by | Jun 7, 2020

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When you know what’s causing your toddler’s nightmares and night terrors, you’re better able to chase the monsters away for a good night’s sleep, says certified sleep consultant Petro Thamm.

It seems like a buzz word in the baby circles these days are night terrors. This is enough to make any parent petrified at the thought! However, understanding what it is and how it may influence your child’s sleep can go a far way to set you up for a good night’s sleep. It is also key to understand the difference between a nightmare and a night terror to determine how to handle each episode.

Sleep explained

To understand when and how it occurs, one needs to understand how sleep works. Sleep isn’t merely a state of rest – in fact, our brains go through different sleep cycles. The two main types we cycle through each night are called REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM (slow wave) sleep. REM sleep is highest during infancy and early childhood (50%) and declines as the person ages. During REM sleep, intense dreaming occurs because of heightened brain activity in this phase. At the same time, there is paralysis of the major voluntary muscle groups. You can recognise REM sleep when you see increased uncontrolled body movements, and particularly rapid eye movements, in your sleeping child. A person’s heart rate and respiration may also become irregular.

Non-REM sleep comprises four stages, with each lasting five to 15 minutes. You can typically see this as “deep” sleep. In a completed sleep-wake cycle, the progression from stage one to four of slow wave sleep occurs before REM sleep happens. As the brain works through each cycle, non-REM sleep is not as deep, so your child sleeps lighter as morning approaches. This kind of sleep is a restful one, where the body repairs and regenerates tissues, builds bone and muscle, and appears to strengthen the immune system. Body movements, muscle tone, respiratory rate, metabolic rate and blood pressure decrease during this phase. This is the stage in which night terrors will occur.

Where do nightmares come from?

Nightmares in toddlers are very common and quite normal. They often peak at age two or three, when rich imaginations could mean children have some trouble distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Nightmares typically occur during REM sleep, near the end of the sleep period. When children have a nightmare, they will awake and seek comfort from the disturbing dream, and they will recognise you when they see you. Toddlers are generally able to recall the nightmare, or at least portions of it, but it may take a while to fall back asleep and get the scary thoughts out of their minds.

You can help keep the scary dreams at bay by avoiding scary videos, books, and stories before bed. Respond to his cries quickly and assure him of his safety. Sleep deprivation is the number one reason nightmares occur, so be sure your little one is getting enough day naps and goes to bed at an age-appropriate time. Also, nightmares can occur during times of stress or when a child is reliving a trauma. If you’re concerned, chat to your doctor or a psychologist.

What are night terrors?
Night terrors occur during NON-REM sleep, usually within two hours after the child falls asleep. It’s important not to think of night terrors as just another nightmare – they are different from each other in the symptoms and experience. Anxiety and screaming often accompany a child’s night terror, the child is often inconsolable and may not recognise you. During a night terror your child doesn’t wake, so he is unaware of your presence and may even push you away. He will not be able to remember this in the morning.

A night terror and its effects usually last between five and 15 minutes and then subsides. These episodes cannot be described as “a bad dream”. They are not a sign of a psychological problem and may occur during a developmental milestone or during a period of overtiredness. Interestingly, night terrors seem to be more common in boys, and occur in five percent of all children. This can probably be put down to genetics, the way the brain develops and how development is influenced by gender. There is not one cause of night terrors, as even stress or big changes in sleep schedules like travelling to a different time zone can cause it.

Night terrors can be frightening – for parents, that is. It’s most important, however, that you stay calm. The first thing you can do is make sure your child gets enough rest. If your tot is having a night terror, monitor him to make sure he’s safe. Don’t try to wake him up or interfere with the process – it will only make things worse. Make sure your child is physically safe during the incident, and don’t talk about it in the morning. If your child is having night terrors two to three times a week at set times during the night (like two hours after going to sleep), keep a sleep log to determine the pattern and wake your child 15 minutes prior to the time he usually has an episode. It is important not to wake him up completely, but for him to be at the point of wakefulness where he mumbles, moves, or rolls over. Repeat this every night for seven to 10 nights in a row even if he has a few nights without a terror.