The piercing scream wakes me up from a dead sleep. As I stumble down the hallway, bumping into walls to get to my child as quickly as possible, I hear the next phase already beginning.
“No. You can’t have her. Leave me alone. Stop. STOP.”
It’s the one-sided argument from hell, filled not with anger or annoyance or even consciousness, but simply fear.
My baby is petrified. And she’s all alone.
Even though I’m in the room now, lifting her up, sitting her on my lap, she can’t see me. She can’t feel me. She is lost, eyes open wide, seeing things that aren’t there. Awake in her sleep, but not present. She’s having another night terror.
Night terrors affect only a small percentage of children, according to the Mayo Clinic. It’s classified by the American Psychiatric Association as a psychological disorder and is known as a parasomnia—which includes anything abnormal that happens during sleep, according to the National Sleep Foundation. Terrors happen during non-rapid eye movement sleep, usually the first third of the night, and they’re typified as arousal disorders. Medical professionals say there is nothing a parent can do to alleviate the terror so we’re supposed to leave the child alone.
But I can’t. I can’t watch her sit up stark straight and shout in abject horror against foes she cannot escape. Seeing her thrash and tremble is too much for me to bear.
Each time, I bring her into the light of the living room with me, crushing her to my chest. I sweep back her sweaty hair and wonder if I’d been kind enough to her that day. Had we argued at all? Had I made her feel heard? Had I made her feel loved? My daughter can’t see me or hear me now, so did I make it count when she could? The National Institutes of Health say stress, tension or conflict can exacerbate occurrences of these terrors. As she cowers in fear at the demons attacking her mind’s eye, I face my own demons. Those of an inadequate mother.
Preliminary studies show a correlation between night terrors and abnormal night breathing, and say it may occur alongside restless leg syndrome. Other research, which studied twins, showed a genetic link to the disorder. But I have identical twins, and only one has night terrors. All research is quick to say there is no conclusive cause of this. Fortunately, in small children, night terrors do not indicate any long-term issues and will typically resolve themselves without intervention. The afflicted tend to be between the ages of 4 and 12, usually growing out of the parasomnia by their teenage years. My daughter is now 6, and she never remembers hers in the morning, thank goodness. I remember, though. They stay with me.
“They’re so sad,” she said once, her little body wracked by tremors.
Another time she pointed at the big mirror in the foyer and screamed, teeth chattering.
She’s only had seven terrors in her life, a number already on the high side, in my opinion. Doctors say kids who suffer from this usually have just a few episodes that all occur within the same few weeks. This is my daughter’s second round of them, the first occurring almost a year and a half ago. Just one or two isolated weeks of nighttime terror, a few nights here and there. Enough to last a lifetime, in my opinion. Fortunately, that’s still in the normal range for sufferers, and night terrors do not indicate mental issues.
There are a few things parents can do to try to prevent these sleep terrors. The National Institutes for Health recommend minimizing stressful activities and using coping mechanisms to help soothe the child. My daughter has a blanket she still sometimes sleeps with from when she was an infant. If I know she’s had a stressful day, I make sure she has it with her in bed. The Mayo Clinic advises starting a calming bedtime routine including story reading and cuddling before bed.
What’s been most effective for us (since we already do those first things) has been to schedule wakings during a week when she’s having episodes. If she’s having terrors, they always occur between 11 p.m. and midnight for us. Knowing this, I will gently wake her up at 10:45 p.m., give her a kiss and some water and tell her I love her. This disrupts her sleep cycle and resets whatever mechanisms might be malfunctioning. So far it’s been working for us, and every day my child sleeps the blissful, sound sleep babies are known for in clichés is a day I rejoice. My daughter deserves not to be frightened to death at night, whether or not she remembers it in the morning.
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