Confusional arousals are just what they sound like. Your child may mumble or sob and thrash about seeming upset or even agitated. He may even cry out and push you away, saying, “No, no! I don’t like it!” These episodes usually last for a just a minute or two and then end with your child returning to a deep sleep.
Sleep terrors or night terrors are an extreme version of confusional arousals.
These are scary to witness. Your child may cry out—or scream—arching his back, his face filled with panic. He may be sweating, with a heaving chest and racing heart, staring into the darkness, yet totally unaware of your presence!
Parents get confused because these kids look almost awake but they’re totally unreachable. That’s because in reality, they’re deep in sleep.
We call these terrors, but we don’t even know if children are experiencing the type of fear we call terror. What we do know is that nothing parents do during an episode seems to help. These disruptions last 5-15 minutes (or occasionally longer). In the end, kids just fall back to sleep or awaken, dazed, with no recollection of the event. Parents, on the other hand, may be totally traumatized for hours!
Unlike sleep talking and sleepwalking, confusional arousals are more common among children under 5 years of age. Sleep terrors occur in about 1 in 20 children—rarely as young as 4 years of age, but usually school age or older. Parasomnias tend to run in families…so if you scared the daylights out of your parents with sleep terrors, they may be getting their revenge now!
It’s reassuring to know that these odd events pose no danger. But they’re no fun, so here are some tricks that may help keep them at bay.
Tricks to Help Your Child with Night Terrors
First, steer clear of the stimulants. Also, try to reduce your child’s life stresses (including violent TV, video and cartoons).
Keep to your regular nap and nighttime schedule (going to bed too late can be a provocation). Use a strong white noise all night. During your bedtime sweet talk, mention how your sweetie’s brain can be so relaxed he will probably have very happy dreams and sleep beautifully all the way till morning. You might even add a drop or two of lavender oil on the mattress.
During an episode, turn up the white noise (to the level of a loud shower), sing a familiar lullaby or just repeat simple words like “You’re safe, you’re safe, Daddy’s here…Daddy’s here.” Eventually, your child will lie back down asleep again.
If your child has had one of these disturbances, caution your mom or the babysitter about this before leaving your child in their care. But don’t talk to others about it in front of your child, because it may confuse or embarrass him. And let your doctor know, especially if the disturbances happen after midnight, just so he or she can rule out other problems.
If sleep walking and night terrors (the NREM parasomnia) are a mix of movement and drama, nightmares (the REM parasomnia) are all drama with very little action. Remember, in REM sleep, the brain’s commands to the muscles of the body can’t get past a “roadblock” at the base of the brain. So even though there may be a riot of thoughts and visions going on in the dream, the body stays still, even limp (thank goodness!).
In adults, bad dreams often seem to be about old memories…but for toddlers, nightmares are about the threatening here and now (angry adults, loud trucks, mean dogs, etc.).
Unlike the sleep terrors, nightmares are definitely upsetting to children. Think about how real dreams sometimes seem to us, and imagine how real—and scary—they must seem to a toddler! They can cause a child to fear falling asleep, and even to fear being in the bedroom. Nightmares are very common and can start as early as 2-3 years of age. They begin at this time for the same reasons that fears begin:
- Kids are feeling more vulnerable.
- They are witnessing and experiencing more upsetting things, either in real life or on TV.
- They’re holding back angry feelings, because we’re beginning to expect them to control their aggressive impulses and not hit, bite or yell. Those corralled thoughts and actions can break through at night into violent, scary dreams.
In night terrors, children push their parents away or just ignore them, but in nightmares they cling to us for dear life! Some children fall back to sleep after a nightmare, but many need reassurance. So be prepared to either cozy up in your sweetie’s bed or let her come into your bed for a cuddle.
If your child does remember a dream of a scary monster or animal, draw pictures of it and then let her jump up and down on them or crumple them up. Or make up a little story about Benny the Bunny having a scary dream and create an ending that’s less scary. Or do some role-playing games in which you’re the scared child and your child is the big monster…and then switch roles so she gets to be the brave child and you are the bully monster, who really is a scaredy-cat who misses her mommy!