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Night Terrors

It’s that time of year, and the scene is the same in neighborhoods across America. Lawn ornaments have morphed into giant spiders, life-sized witches rest on once-empty front-porch rockers, and tree-hanging birdhouses have made way for swaying skeletons. The waiter serving your family’s dinner is in on the act. He has traded his bow tie and jacket for fangs and a black cape and sports a drop of blood clinging to his ruby red lips.

And so I ask you this question: Is it any wonder your child doesn’t want to go to bed at night? Or that he wakes up scared and regales you with tales of Halloween decorations gone berserk?

No. These things shouldn’t surprise you. And most of the time they aren’t too difficult to address. A little reassurance. A night light. A squirt gun filled with “anti-monster” juice at the bedside. An evening camped out on the floor next to mom and dad’s bed. The season will pass, and so will the fright.

But wait a minute. There’s one scenario I forgot to address. One most disconcerting. One that leaves parents awake and on edge, wondering when it will rear its ugly head.

The dreaded night terror.

Night terrors affect about 2% of all toddlers and young school-aged children and they tend to run in families. If you’ve never seen one, you’re in for a shock! Your peacefully sleeping child will suddenly become agitated and restless in bed. She may cry… or scream… or talk wild gibberish. She may open her eyes, but they’ll stare right through you. She may sit up, stand up and walk aimlessly about the room. She won’t respond to your normal comforting measures. Think Walking Dead or Zombie Apocalypse. It’s real and it’s come to visit you.

But don’t blame the Halloween decorations.

Night terrors aren’t associated with dream sleep. In fact, kids don’t remember them in the morning. Fear of the dark won’t bring them on, although feeling overtired after a hard day of ghoulish partying might. We don’t know all the ins and outs of night terrors. They remain a partial mystery. Here are some things we do know:

1. Night terrors almost always occur during the first two hours of sleep.

2. They usually last 10 to 30 minutes and will end as quickly as they began.

3. You should not try to wake your child. Let the episode end on its own.

4. You should protect your child if he gets out of bed. Gently direct him away from dangerous objects and stairs.

5. The best prevention is ensuring your child gets enough restful sleep during naps and bedtime.

Other problems may go BOO in the night.

Certain seizures and emotional disorders may cause symptoms similar to night terrors. If your child has any of the following, be sure to touch base with your doctor:

1. Shaking or stiffening of the arms or legs.

2. Episodes lasting longer than thirty minutes.

3. Episodes occurring during the second half of the night.

4. Events your child remembers in the morning.

5. Events corresponding to personal or family stress or accompanied by unusual daytime fears.

A word of warning: don’t describe the details of these overnight events to your young child. She may form a false memory and “think” she recalls the episode when she really doesn’t. At the end of the day, true night terrors are harmless and will work themselves out. The same can not be said for the tingle you’ll feel running up and down your spine when your child sits up and screams in the night.

Mike Patrick, MD
Dr. Mike is an emergency medicine physician at Nationwide Children’s and host of PediaCast, our pediatric podcast for moms and dads. Each week, PediaCast covers news parents can use, answers listener questions, and delivers interviews with pediatric experts on a variety of topics. Dr Mike is also an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, where he serves as a faculty advisor for medical students. On the home front, he is married with two kids: a college-aged daughter and a son in high school. Prior to working in the emergency department, Dr Mike spent 10 years in a busy private practice, a time he says most prepared him for the practical advice he shares on PediaCast. Dr Mike also has an interest in roller skating. He learned to walk with skates on his feet, and his first job (age 10) was as a disc jockey at his hometown roller skating rink. He has also worked as a DJ at two radio stations, experiences which further prepared him to host our podcast!

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