Night terrors are frustrating because you really have little control over them. They are not fully understood by science, so we do the best we can to help kids feel safe and calm both before and after they occur.
Here are some practical suggestions if you are caring for a child experiencing night terrors:
Create a relaxing environment:
I would suggest that the family work really diligently on creating a relaxed environment in the evening prior to bedtime. No screen time for at least the last hour and preferably two. A slow transition to bed that includes reading books, sitting together on the bed and whatever seems to help this child feel safe can be helpful.
Ensure the child feels safe:
If the child does not feel safe, they are more likely to have issues in the night. For some kids, it may include having a spot on the floor of your bedroom right next to your bed where you place a mattress or something padded with blankets, and you tell her that if she feels scared in the night, it is always okay for her to come into your room and sleep right next to you.
Offer comfort and reassurance:
If the child wakes up screaming, go to him and comfort him in whatever ways he feels comfortable such as big bear hugs, sitting on your lap and quiet voices telling him that you are sorry that he had scary dreams and you will keep him safe. I usually say, “That was very scary, but everything is going to be okay. We’re going to stick together and always keep you safe when you are at our house.”
Calm the nervous system:
I would focus on calming the nervous system rather than talking about the experience. A drink or a snack might be needed in the middle of the night to help regulate blood sugar. Other ideas might be trying a weighted blanket when she goes to bed because it helps calm the nervous system. Weighted blankets might also help after a night terror.
Here are some additional recommendations from Mayo Clinic:
- Get adequate sleep. Fatigue can contribute to sleep terrors. Try an earlier bedtime and a more regular sleep schedule. Sometimes a short nap may help. If possible, avoid sleep-time noises or other stimuli that could interrupt sleep.
- Establish a regular, relaxing routine before bedtime. Do quiet, calming activities — such as reading books, doing puzzles or soaking in a warm bath — before bed. Relaxation exercises may help, too. Make the bedroom comfortable and quiet for sleep.
- Make the environment safe. To help prevent injury, close and lock all windows and exterior doors at night. You might even lock interior doors or put alarms or bells on them. Block doorways or stairways with a gate, and move electrical cords or other objects that pose a tripping hazard. Avoid using bunk beds. Place any sharp or fragile objects out of reach, and lock up all weapons.
- Put stress in its place. Identify the things that stress you out, and brainstorm possible ways to handle the stress. If your child seems anxious or stressed, talk about what’s bothering him or her. A mental health professional can help.
- Offer comfort. If your child has a sleep terror episode, consider simply waiting it out. It may be distressing to watch, but it won’t harm your child. You might cuddle and gently soothe your child and try to get him or her back into bed. Speak softly and calmly. Shaking your child or shouting may make things worse. Usually the episode will shortly stop on its own.
- Look for a pattern. If your child has sleep terrors, keep a sleep diary. For several nights, note how many minutes after bedtime a sleep terror episode occurs. If the timing is fairly consistent, anticipatory awakenings may help.
– Joy McAfee, Rochester Coordinator