Q: My son and his wife tell me that our three-year-old grandson has night terrors. They do not happen every night but when they do it is a concern for anyone around him. He will start screaming uncontrollably and thrashing around in his bed. It’s frightening. I expect to look after my grandson occasionally and I look forward to doing so but I am nervous about these night terrors. How should I handle them?
A: Night terrors are relatively rare. Only about three to six percent of children have them. Usually kids struggle with night terrors between the ages of four and 11, although some children as young as 18 months old have them.
To understand night terrors, you need to understand that sleep is a cyclical process, floating every night between deep sleeps (called rapid eye movement sleep) and light sleep (called non-REM sleep).
During the night, we go between REM and non-REM. Our most restful times are likely during REM. This is also that time during the night when we are most likely to have both dreams and nightmares.
Night terrors come during non-REM sleep. A night terror is not a nightmare but an overwhelming sense of fear. It’s not particularly directed to any one object or person.
In other words, there is no substance to the fears roused in night terrors. They just happen.
We do not know what causes night terrors but researchers have noticed that at times they are familial and often found within extended families. The grandparents or parents may have had night terrors when they were younger.
At times, night terrors appear to be related to overstimulation following an unusually exciting day. Sometimes they may be related to changes in the child’s medications.
If you are looking after your grandchild and he has a night terror, remember that you can do nothing about it. It will not hurt your grandson and it does not mean that anything major is wrong with him. Don’t wake him up and don’t try to comfort him.
That will only confuse him and he may have trouble getting back to sleep. Keep him safe, make sure that he does not hurt himself while he is thrashing around and then leave him alone to resolve it himself.
He will sleep through the night terror, and then he will settle down. He will not remember it when he wakes up.
Night terrors happen two to three hours after the child has gone to sleep. Nightmares happen closer to the morning of the new day.
If your grandson has a nightmare, comfort him. If he has a night terror, let him work it out.