As Simon was brushing his teeth before bed, a heart-stopping, blood-curdling scream pierced the night. It was coming from the direction of his four-year-old son Mitchell’s bedroom. Simon sprinted off to investigate and found him lying on his bed wild-eyed and screaming. Simon hugged Mitchell tightly, trying to calm him, but Mitchell seemed unaware of what was happening and it only upset him further. Then, as abruptly as it began, the episode was over. Mitchell sighed, rolled over and started snoring softly. The following morning, he woke bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, unaware of the previous night’s ordeal. His dad, on the other hand, had barely closed his eyes.
What Mitchell had experienced was a night terror, a frightening sleep-related phenomenon that affects very young children right up to pre-teens. Night terrors are a type of parasomnia, belonging to the same “family” as sleepwalking and sleep talking, according to Dr Sarah Blunden, Sleep Psychologist and Research Fellow at the University of South Australia. “Most kids will experience one of these at least once in their lives, and 2–5 per cent will have frequent episodes,” she says.
When young children have a night terror, they scream, cry and shout. They’re also likely to be breathing rapidly and have an elevated heart rate. Some can also get out of bed and run around the room, says Dr Margot Davey, Director of Melbourne Children’s Sleep Unit, Monash Medical Centre, Clayton. “Parents often say their child looks like they are possessed, screaming and running around terrified,” she says.
Has your child ever had a temper tantrum when they wake at night, and you can’t seem to settle them? Chances are they were experiencing another related sleep phenomenon called confusional arousal. “It can start with the child moaning and groaning and then build up to the child thrashing, arching their back and yelling — it almost appears like a temper tantrum,” says Dr Davey. “Confusional arousals usually start off slowly and then build in momentum until the child seems inconsolable, then they’ll settle back down again.”
Night terrors or nightmares?
Night terrors and confusional arousal (also called sudden partial wakings) are often mistaken for nightmares, but they are very different. For starters, they both occur at different stages of sleep. Night terrors are related to deep sleep and this typically occurs in the first few hours of sleep. Nightmares are related to dream sleep and this tends to happen in the early hours of the morning, says Sheyne Rowley, Australian Baby Whisperer and author of Sheyne Rowley’s Dream Baby Guide.
“If your child is having a nightmare, they can be comforted and should settle back to sleep,” says Ms Rowley. But if your child is in the middle of a night terror or sudden partial waking, it has been shown that trying to wake the child can prolong the episode, she adds.