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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.

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