I love this time of the year. I love the crisp cool autumn days, and watching the leaves turn from green to golden brown and an array of reds and russets. I love the fact you get to eat warming comfort food – without feeling gluttonous or greedy. I love the first fire of the year and curling up next to it drinking oozy red wines. But for me one of the best things about this time of the year is all the festivities and celebrations that pave the way to Christmas. One of the great secrets of parenthood is getting to partake in all the kiddie-focused events throughout the year, and Autumn/Winter is jam packed with fun stuff to do. My mum is Austrian, so we get to throw in a load of continental traditions alongside the usual British ones for an even more turbo charged (and saccharine fuelled) few months!
Today is Halloween, which to me marks the start of the nonstop eating fest that finally grinds to a halt on January 2nd (never the 1st clearly, as it’s a bank holiday and therefore not to be wasted by being wholesome and chaste). Now Sprog1 is four he ‘gets’ Halloween and has been very excited about dressing up and wandering the streets begging for sugar hits for some weeks. Since today is about all things that go bump in the night, I thought it rather apt to briefly chat about ‘night terrors’ which can affect around 3-6% of children but is probably more terrifying for parents than the offspring.
It had been on my mind to write this as a Halloween post for some time. Rather strangely Sprog2, who is two and a half has taken it upon herself to start having nightmares this week and I vaguely remember Sprog1 starting to have nightmares at around the same age. No one really knows when children start dreaming, but it is thought that nightmares first become apparent when imagination becomes more vivid, but the line between fiction and reality remains blurred. For most kids this is between 2-4 years old.
Night terrors are often confused with ‘very bad’ nightmares when in fact they are very different beasts. To understand the difference between the two, understanding normal sleep may be helpful.
Normal sleep typically is made up of three distinct phases;
• Quiet Sleep: This is divided into four stages. Sleep becomes increasingly deep as you pass through each stage, with stage four being the deepest sleep.
• Rapid Eye Movement (REM) Sleep: this is when we do most of our dreaming. During this phase the body remains limp but our brain and eyes are very active.
• Waking: we wake for short period of one to two minutes throughout the night. This occurs every few hours and in the most part we don’t remember it. When babies are born approximately 50% of sleep is made up of REM sleep. By the age of two only 35% of sleep is made up of REM sleep and by 10 years old this has plateaued to around 25%. Our sleep cycles remains fairly static until our 60’s when the REM phase declines further. The reason why we have REM sleep is not really understood.
Nightmares occur during REM sleep and typically occur late in the night. I’m sure all of you know what a nightmare feels like so I won’t patronise you by describing one!
Night terrors occur during the fourth stage of deep sleep and often within the first hour of nodding off. Its thought to be due to a sort of malfunction in the usual smooth transition between the various sleeps stages. The child will suddenly starting to scream, mumble or groan without warning. He or she can appear extremely panicked and anxious. As the episode occurs during deep sleep rather than REM there is no ‘bad dream’ involved. In general the child does not fully wake up during these episodes, and more often than not has no recollection of events in the morning. Its one of those things that is by and large far more traumatic for parent than child.
Trying to wake you child to calm them down whilst in the midst of a night terror is usually futile, and likely to make them more distressed. The episodes can last from 5-45minutes so making sure your child is safe during this period of time is very important. Moving objects that they could bang into or protecting them from hard head boards etc. are some practical tips. Most children will fairly suddenly drop back to sleep after the episode has finished – as abruptly as it started.
Night terrors peak in children aged 4-12 years and for some reason are slightly more common in boys than girls. Often they can be isolated events, but some kids are prone to repeated bouts. In most cases there is no obvious reason for this to happen and is probably related to the brain and nerve pathways becoming more mature. It is known that in some cases fatigue, illness and medication can trigger night terrors, and some children are more prone to them when sleeping in unfamiliar environments.
Most children outgrow night terrors but it can be a really distressing problem for both the child and parents. As night terrors often occur at roughly the same time each night, the usual advice is to try and pre-empt the event. The cycle of terrors can often be broken by waking the child before each episode is due and keeping him or her awake for a few minutes. It can take a week or so but often helps the terrors to stop all together.
Have you had a child with night terrors? I’d love to know what techniques you have found helpful to stop them or advice you could give other parents?