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The scary truth about night terrors

Do you know what it’s like to stand near, but helplessly apart, from your child while he screams out in apparent horror during the night? I do. I did it almost nightly for months. It wasn’t necessary.

My six-year-old son is one of many children who experienced night terrors. Like most of these children, he has a relative who experienced night terrors as well–I had them when I was a child. Night terrors are not bad dreams or nightmares. As horrible as they are, nightmares dissolve with light and with the calming presence of a caring parent. Children typically experience nightmares late in the night, and can usually recall specific details. These dreams can be prevented, possibly, by avoiding certain images, stories, or food items. This is an inconvenience, not a problem. Night terrors are a different beast.

Your child doesn’t awaken because of– or during– a night terror, although their eyes may be wide open. You cannot sooth, or calm, or reassure a child experiencing one. Children typically experience night terrors early in the night, and have no recall of specific details. The standard medical advice suggests that you should stand by, watch your child suffer, listen to them scream, and only inhibit their thrashing when it might cause physical harm. In essence, your parenting style should be ultra-hands off at exactly the time you are emotionally driven to be fully hands on. And while I have felt tortured by this, I am more tormented by the secret belief that my son has subconsciously internalized being abandoned during these moments.

And I mean subconsciously internalizing the event, because experts believe that children will not remember night terrors, and thus bear no lingering scars. Indeed, my recollection of night terrors is not of the event, but rather finally waking to find my parents and/or siblings working to calm me down. But we live at a time when we are learning that the experiences felt by one’s grandmother can, through epigenetics, influence how we respond to the World. I worry that these moments my son experienced may have lasting effect.

These moments, we’ve now learned, happen within the first few hours of sleep as individuals arouse from slow-wave sleep (that is, deep non-REM sleep) and transition into lighter REM sleep. Night terrors appear to be more common in children who are overtired, sick, or stressed, or in kids taking new medicines, or in those away from home. In all cases they present as a non-responsive, terrified child.

Since most children do not experience them, we’d have to consider night terrors an extreme outcome of the cultural practice of nighttime separation.

Children tend to grow out of night terrors, with only a small percentage experiencing them into their adolescence. Some children experience them with such frequency, however, that professionals have suggested interventions. A common treatment for repeated night terrors is to prescribe antidepressants. A new approach to treating them is scheduled awakenings, whereby children are ‘jostled’ during the approximate time when they would be transitioning between sleep states, thus disrupting the path towards a night terror. Because my son experienced terrors 5-6 nights a week for months, we tried the latter strategy.

My wife and I would put my son to bed, wait for him to fall asleep, and then after 50-minutes stand in the hallway and trigger a vibrating device inserted between his mattress and box spring. This form of sleep disruption rarely worked. It’s when I joked one night that the sleep disruption was working better on us, that I had an epic faceplant moment: my son didn’t suffer from abnormal sleep patterns.

He was suffering from an unnatural sleeping situation. I should have known better! I teach about the health consequences of living in evolutionarily novel environments. When in our evolutionary history would it have made sense for young children to sleep apart from their parents? If it makes evolutionary sense, why are we essentially the only primate to do it? And if it doesn’t make sense, why doesn’t it? I’ll posit an answer–sleeping apart from your parents was dangerous. Indeed, being separated from family in the dark is exceptionally dangerous. It’s not long ago that humans were predators and prey.

We spend all day long keeping track of our children, rarely letting them out of visual contact. Then at the end of the day, we separate them from the family, place them in a dark and quiet room, and leave them. From an evolutionary perspective, they should be terrified. We expect more terrors from kids who are stressed or displaced from their family, I just don’t think we’ve recognized that our culture has led us to stress and displace our children every night.

We started sleeping with my son the next night. We didn’t need to stay the whole night, but found that he fell asleep earlier than he had previously. He also reached for us after sleeping for about an hour, around that time he would have been transitioning to lighter REM sleep. At that point, if the one who was with him was awake, my wife or I could return to our bedroom. I often slept the night. His terrors ceased, and his younger brother–who has only known co-sleeping–has never experienced one.

This personal anecdote led me to believe that night terrors are inflicted on our children as a result of novel cultural practices. If correct, since most children do not experience them, we’d have to consider night terrors an extreme outcome of the cultural practice of nighttime separation.

But if this is an extreme outcome, what lesser outcomes are we missing? I believe co-sleeping with children (1+ years old) is likely to decrease the prevalence of night terrors – and of any potential ‘lesser outcomes’ – by recovering an evolutionarily beneficial method of nighttime parenting.

Featured image credit: mattress bed pillow sleep relax by congerdesign. Public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. A

    This really struck a chord with me. I’m an adult (in my 30’s) and I suffer from intense night terrors that started in childhood. I know you’re not supposed to remember them, and many times I don’t, but sometimes I retain small fragments of them after I awaken. The particularly interesting thing is that they all end in total darkness (the lights suddenly go out). I have to sleep with some kind of light on, and I’ve actually had them triggered by people turning the lights out on me while I’m sleeping. Power outages will do it to me as well. I cry out every time, and I’ve started fighting a few times (don’t remember those ones). I was terrified of the dark as a child, and I still am as an adult. My parents would leave me crying and screaming in my crib when I was a baby and forced me to sleep in the dark with my door closed. As crazy as it sounds, I think this actually induced them. If my husband and I ever have children, they will not be sleeping alone until they’re old enough to do it willingly.

  2. Dan

    Unfortunately, your story is anecdotal and doesn’t fit the answer for all children who suffer night terrors. Since two of my kids suffer night terrors, co sleeping has had little impact. We never left them in a bed screaming until they fell asleep. My older son’s sleep terrors started at 6 months. He is now 10. He was in a crib in our room when they started. Once we were in a hotel room sharing a bed with him and he went into his routine screaming “they are coming” and “please no, please God No, please please stop. Help!” Etc…. Going to sleep sooner, going to the bathroom before sleep, early bed time, praying, none of these provided a permanent solution. My son screams, cries and talks as if he is being tortured by something from an invisible world. I can sleep with him or not and he still has the terror. It is more like he is reliving some horrific event where he begs for mercy. It is awful as a parent to witness. We are now considering hypnotherapy to find out if there is indeed some horrific event trapped in his subconscious. I don’t know if hypnotherapy is real. However, We are now even open to the ludicrous sounding idea proposed and researched by University of Virginia medical school professor Ian Stevenson of the possibility of past lives.
    Who knows. I just know it isn’t easy being a parent

  3. Sarah faull

    i put my hands on my son last week who had started a night terror after having many for the last year and prayed loudly, “ in the name of Jesus Christ I command you leave my child and get out of my house!”. He immediately stopped his screaming and relaxed. It was awesome to witness.

  4. geturtips

    Sleep problem are divided into 3 main groups, dyssomnias, parasomnias and those related to other diseases. The symptoms will be different depending on the type of disorder. The proposed treatments will also depend on the specificity of the disorder.

  5. Cathy

    I agree with one of the other readers that this story is anecdotal. I co-sleep with my 6 year old and have been apart from her in total perhaps 6 nights of her life and she has night terrors. I would change that title because it’s not truth.

  6. olobo emmanuel

    its a good experience i was also scared when my child used to cry at night but i thought it was abig problem

  7. Anji

    My son started having night terrors at 3-6 months of age. He co slept with me until he was 6 years old, and still had night terrors. We also lived in a home that was haunted, and after moving, it all stopped. I have more belief that his night terrors were caused by spirits, and nothing else.

  8. George

    Hey, I was looking around the internet to try and see what other people had experienced in their night terrors and I think I wanna give a little input to this. I had night terrors dozens of times from probably the age of 8 up until the last time when I was 12. For me, I found that more frequently I was troubled with night terrors when having a fever. I could remember almost everything that happened in the night but couldn’t describe it really bedside every time feeling super small or sometimes super big in the room. I remember just being petrified as my eyes seemed to zoom in and out. The ceiling would seem super high above me then I would feel like it was closing in on me. I personally stand against the idea that a parent should stay away from their kid because I remember the only thing that could ever help me through them was my dad sleeping next to me with his arm around me. Not sure if any one had a similar sort of experience, but I remember even though it seemed like he was a giant next to me in my terrors and I felt dizzy and confused, it was comforting to have some sort of grounding to myself like his arm over my side.
    I hope this helps someone

  9. Abree

    Yea I co-sleep with my 7 month old and he started having what I think are night terrors a cpl months back. I still don’t know if that’s what he’s having but it sure looks to be. He’s in perfect health, no stressful environments, no traumatizing events have happened and he’s super happy baby daily. He doesn’t get them nightly but atleast 1/2 a month. They scare the shit out of me. He will be asleep laying beside me after nursing and immediately start panic crying. It’s different than his normal “I’m grumpy bc I woke up put me back to sleep nursing” cry. The night terror cry is as if something just grabbed him and is hurting him and he goes zero to 100 in scared horrific loud hyperventilating crying, with his eyes closed. Nothing that usually soothes his normal upset crying works in these moments. It takes about 20 minutes or more to calm him down back to sleep, it’s heartbreaking watching and idk how to fix it.

  10. A.M.S.

    I am 26 years old and every night for the past six years I’ve had recurring dreams that are basically night terrors but as an adult who mastered lucid dreaming by the age of 19, they don’t manage to terrify me until the very end because I am able to convince myself that I’m dreaming until my death scene comes. In the end of every dream – for the PAST FIVE YEARS STRAIGHT – I die. And it is never a quick death. Also, my spirit seems to randomly jump between only two past lives and in such detail that I remember them very clearly.

    In one of them, everything is otherworldly, the closest comparison I can make is that of R’lyeh because physics as known to the human mind just do not apply there. It is a nightmarish super-technological hellscape city plagued by chaos and death. And every time, I am part of a team of “explorers” who essentially capture other intelligent beings from other worlds – humans are known to us as well – we are technically artificial lifeforms designed and created by the most advanced minds in all of known existence to control everything within their reach. We serve our overlords and do not question their motives. And in this life – real life – I am extremely rebellious and skeptical of pretty much everything. But I only seem to visit that place about twice each week so it doesn’t both me as much.

    In the other dream – which I experience MOST nights – I am a buccaneer in the year 1893. We are on a ship just off the coast of the island of Tortuga in the dead of night. My mates and I are planning to ambush a royal guard and kidnap him for information when we hear some sort of commotion and screams above deck. Something hits our ship and the only candle illuminating our lodge falls to the floor and light fades to darkness. We hear someone – or something – board the ship and we whisper to each other to prepare for a fight and ready our swords, each of us four taking a corner. But I awaken to discover my three mates in front of me sitting up against barrels with their heads removed and placed in their laps. I scream in horror before my executioners decapitate me. The craziest part about this dream though is that the very first time I had it, it was an actual night terror because I was only 5 years old and I was sleepwalking too. My parents remember it clearly because it was such a traumatic ordeal. I just got up in the middle of sleeping and walked from my bedroom and into the living room. Sleepwalking is fairly normal for children and I did it a lot throughout my childhood! But something – which now I believe was a trapped spirit or “ghost” – woke me from my slumber and I saw three headless bodies on our couch with the heads on the laps. I screamed bloody murder. My parents both jumped out of bed, my mom turned on the lights and grabbed me, my dad had a shotgun in his hands and pointed it towards the door asking me “where are they?!” and I just sobbed uncontrollably and pointed at the couch repeating “THEY’RE.. ALL.. DEAD”. After about twenty minutes, my parents managed to calm me down and explain to them exactly what I saw. So I told them the truth, I just woke up standing in the living room with three dead men with tattoos (my mom had a few back then and had a lot more now) sitting up on the couch with their heads removed and placed in their laps. And I experience this nearly every night.

    I wouldn’t wish this curse on anyone.

  11. Jayden Bentley

    I have night terrors and I am 12 but they go on and off the make me cry or scream softly but I think it is because i watch the walking dead with my dad every night and the walkers are kinda creepy

  12. Basiheu

    My children share a bed with me until about 3 and both experienced long bouts of night terrors. Cute evo-psych theory but evo-psych isn’t a science. Annoyed that this pap shows up on the front page of Google search.

  13. J Dale

    I am a 46 year old woman and have had night terrors since childhood. I have about 3 a night and my husband is shattered, it’s ruining our relationship as he gets angry. I think mine are triggered by the stand by light and router light in our bedroom as the source of stress in my nightmare is the distance has changed between the two lights means I will die. It’s embarrassing and sounds nuts. Been to a sleep therapist before and even if I can break the pattern for a week or so they always come back

  14. Robert Knapp

    We started taking care of our granddaughter when her mother was arrested, she was sleeping in her own bed fine at first then one night after one of the video visits which went fine, she woke up screaming bloody murder as they say got out of her bed and was banging on her bedroom door. Which was very shocking because for some reason she normally would not get out of her bed when she would wake up even when we asked her to we would end up having to go pick her up out of bed, anyway took us a longtime to calm her down that night the rest of that night and the next night we let her sleep with us and she slept through the night like a little angel of course I noticed no matter what position we all were in she had to be touching both of us somehow hand on grandma foot on grandpa ect.. But apparently this is not acceptable to health and welfare and I’m trying to find out why. Oh and I’d like to comment bout one of earlier post we are not talking about children crying till they go to sleep, we are talking about children waking up absolutely terrified and unable to tell you what scared them

  15. Angie

    Hello I am a 40 yr old mother of 2 I myself had bad dreams with sleep paralysis I have a younger sister who night terrors for sure it use to scare me so much annnd my mom was a terrible sleep walker I guess my grandmother had to make sure doors where locked and everything so my mom wouldn’t get out at night… but my 4yr old daughter seems to do all and everything she talks in her sleep and on rare occasions sleep walks my main concern is the nights she cries it’s not uncontrollable or unconsolable but consistent like night terrors and soon after falling asleep. I would say like an hour after she falls asleep then it’s like whimpering and crying every 5 min for sometimes hours mostly about 5 to 10 times. She never will say what’s wrong I’ve tried asking her what’s wrong or does something hurt she will not answer me. I worry so much about her. I just don’t know if it’s night mares or night terrors. Oh and she co sleeps with me mostly but I have notice she actually sleeps better in her own bed but only if nothing wakes her up she is a very light sleeper as am I and then she gets upset that I moved her in her bed. Any advice would be appreciated

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