As the mother of a boy who had nightmares and night terrors for over a year, I can tell you - and all the other parents who are going through this ordeal - that there is hope.
It may not seem like it during the actual episode, but believe me when I say that these terrifying nights will not last forever.
My son had his first nightmare when he was only four years old. A month after that, his night terrors - and my nightmares - began.
He had been asleep for about three hours when his first night terror happened. I was in the dresser when I heard him scream. I rushed to our bed - we co-sleep - and what I saw was so surreal that I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.
Our son was sitting upright. His eyes were open and he was crying while screaming so loud that he woke up his sister who was already asleep in her crib. Fear was all over his face. I turned to look at my husband, who had the same look on his.
We were absolutely stunned by what was happening. For a few seconds, neither my husband nor I moved or said anything. But my heart and mind was racing. Is this an allergic reaction? Perhaps it's a delayed reaction to an earlier accident? Is he possessed?
I did not understand what was going on, but I did what any loving Mum would: I looked at him in the eye and asked him gently what was wrong. He answered me with more tears and louder screams. I tried to hug him and carry him, but he wasn’t receptive.
It was as if my own son didn’t recognise me and I had no idea what was happening, what was causing it, or why. For thirty minutes, he just kept screaming and crying while I kept stroking his head, desperately trying to make sense of the situation.
In the midst of our panic and horror, my husband managed to ask help from our son’s paediatrician. By the time his doctor replied, “Most likely night terrors”, he was already asleep.
I wish I could tell you we only experienced this once, but a few nights later, there we were again: our sleep interrupted, our son crying and screaming for half an hour.
My confidence in our parenting ability had officially dropped to an all-time low. The confusion, fear, and hopelessness that I felt every time my son had his night terror almost drove me to insanity and despair.
I even resorted to Google searching for things like, “4 year old suddenly waking up at night crying.”
After enduring more than a year filled with nerve-racking cries and ear-piercing screams at night, countless visits to my son paediatrician and sleep specialists, and poring over articles, books and research papers about nightmares and night terrors, I can tell you that the solution to these recurring nighttime concerns is not as difficult as you might think.
In our case, we began to see the light after we consistently applied what we learned from the experts, and these are exactly what I’ll be sharing with you in this post.
When their dreams aren't so sweet
My son’s first nightmare involved a shark trying to eat him. He woke up crying, but after a few minutes of cuddling, he fell asleep until the next morning.
When he had the same dream a few nights later, my husband and I had a bad gut feeling that turned out to be right.
We found out later that one of his friend’s parents has a massive collection of shark-themed objects, including authentic shark teeth, shark posters, and a shark sculpture. His friend proudly shared with him his Dad’s shark collection during one of their playdates, unknowingly triggering our son’s fear of sharks, and his shark nightmares.
According to Professor Wendy Hall, PhD, RN, 25% to 50% of preschoolers experience nightmares.
These scary dreams are not 100% avoidable, however, but that doesn’t mean parents like us can’t do anything to reduce our child’s chances of having them. In most cases, paying more attention to what our children are exposed to during the day, and applying calming strategies after they had a bad dream, can go a long way. Here are the methods that worked the best for us.
How I addressed my son’s nightmares
Limit your child’s exposure to scary content
I confess that this is where we made a mistake. As parents with full-time jobs, my husband and I had little knowledge and control over what our son was exposed to during daytime.
But after we found out about his close encounter with sharks, we were determined to be more vigilant. We gave his nanny strict orders to monitor what he is watching on telly or online, as well as the games he is playing on his iPad. We also installed parental control apps on all our gadgets to cover all the bases. During weekends, my husband and I only watch educational and kid-friendly shows with him.
Make your child feel safe in their bedroom
Many sleep specialists also advised us to ask our son which objects in our bedroom make him feel afraid and anxious. He pointed to the gaming poster of my husband (it’s now hanging in his office) and the large vase at the corner of our room (now in our living room). He also said the tree branches outside our bedroom window scare him, so my husband sawed them off.
I also stumbled upon these kid-friendly zippered bed sheets in my search for nightmare solutions and my son loves them!
He said he feels safer with these sheets because they prevent him from kicking off his covers. Since his body stays covered the whole night, he feels more confident that no monster can attack him while he sleeps.
If your child sleeps in his/her own bedroom, you may leave their bedroom door slightly open so they still feel connected to you during the night. Before they sleep, reassure them that you will come back to check in on them from time to time.
Follow a consistent bedtime routine
All the sleep specialists we talked to said that following a consistent bedtime routine is one of the most effective ways to solve any sleep-related problem. When we made changes to his bedtime routine—we read him books instead of letting him play games on his iPad and started giving him a relaxing massage—we noticed that the frequency of his nightmares decreased.
Immediately after my son woke up crying because of his shark nightmare, my husband and I were by his side, calming him down and speaking comforting words. We assured him that he is safe, that everything is fine, and that he just had a bad dream.
I believe our immediate attention and support during his ordeal helped him calm down and fall asleep again faster.
Ask questions and listen
The next morning, we asked our son how he felt and whether he recalled his nightmare. When he told us it was about a shark, we asked him where he saw a shark in the first place. Our probing questions and attentive ears led us to the discovery of the shark collection of his friend’s Dad.
Take it from me: if you really want to get to the bottom of your child’s nightmares, I suggest you talk to them in a relaxed environment and help them feel safe and understood
I honestly don’t know who looked and felt more terrified during our son’s initial night terrors: him, my husband, or me. I admit that our lack of knowledge and experience in this area made things worse—for our son and us, his parents—and this pushed us to learn as much as we can about night terrors in the shortest amount of time.
Night terrors, also called sleep terrors, are harmless episodes of crying, screaming, and sleepwalking that occur when our children are in a state of deep sleep. In my son’s case, he did all three. Imagine our horror when we saw him get out of bed one night, screaming, crying and walking towards our stairs!
According to the Australian Centre for Education In Sleep, these night-time wakings are just one of the intrinsic sleep problems that affect 35% to 40% of children and adolescents. They happen without warning and last up to 20 minutes (or longer). They may happen until our children reach puberty.
In my opinion, the most disturbing thing about night terrors is the feeling of uncertainty they bring. During the first few times that our son had them, my husband and I spent a few minutes debating whether he was awake or asleep. Seriously. He looked awake to me (crying, screaming and all), but my husband felt otherwise. He was right.
It took us many panic-stricken nights before we learned how to properly deal with our son’s night terrors. Sure, there were hiccups along the way, particularly during the first few times they happened, but over time, we got better at dealing with these terror-filled nights. The following steps worked for us, and I hope they will do the same for you.
How I addressed my son’s night terrors
I have a confession: I easily panic when things go wrong. That said, this tip was the most difficult for me to follow. Seeing our precious boy screaming, crying, and getting out of bed was the perfect recipe for my panic attack. But during our consultations, his paediatrician and sleep specialists urged me to practice self-calming strategies and emphasised that panicking won’t help improve my son’s situation. They told me, “You can’t help your son if you can’t stay calm.”
I held on to those words, and kept replaying them in my mind whenever he had his night terrors. I also took short meditation sessions and practiced slow breathing exercises during the day. Lastly, I found that listening to gentle instrumental music during the day helped me feel more calm at night.
Don’t wake up your child
We never attempted to wake up our son while he was having his night terrors because we were advised early on by his paediatrician that doing so will be futile and potentially harmful for him. She warned, “If you wake up your child in the middle of his night terror, it might leave him feeling confused.”
Remember, our children are in a state of deep sleep during their night terrors. The look of anguish on their face is real, but they aren’t really awake or conscious yet. Because of this, they will neither respond to our attempts to calm them down nor realise our presence.
The only thing we can do as parents is wait it out and let their night terror run its course until our children fall back to sleep.
Keep them safe
When our son’s night terror evolved from a mere crying-and-screaming routine to an action-packed activity where he walks around our house, my husband and I had to make some changes to ensure his safety. We locked our bedroom windows and door before he slept.
We kept our bedroom floor clean so he won’t slip or trip over anything. As an extra safety measure, we also installed a safety gate on our stairs and additional light on our hallways.
Keeping their environment hazard-free is one of the best things we can do for our children who are having night terrors. To be honest, we learned this lesson a bit too late. The first time our son got out of bed and sleepwalked, some of his toys were left lying on the floor.
We were a few seconds late in getting his toy ball out of his way, and he slipped. After that incident, we made sure all his toys have been neatly packed away and off the floor before he goes to bed.
I also discovered that zippered bed sheets helped keep our son stay on his bed. Once we have pulled up the zips on the sides of these sheets, they provide a mild restraining effect that prevents him from getting out of bed and sleepwalking.
Gently lead them back to a sleeping position
Sleep Medicine Specialist Ann Halbower, MD, said the best thing we can do during our children’s night terror is to gently guide them back into the lying down or sleeping position. Once our children are in this position, they will naturally find it easier to fall asleep again.
I know what some of you might be thinking. My child is running around our house! How can I gently lead him back to bed? I can’t even touch him! I understand where you are coming from, and I feel your frustration. I’ll share with you what my husband did to lure our son back to our bedroom.
Since he was the calmer parent between us two, we decided it would be better if he would be the one to follow our son wherever he goes during his night-terror-with-sleepwalking episodes. He would talk to our son in a very gentle but firm voice. He wasn’t whispering or shouting. He was just using his normal speaking voice, but with an extra softness to it.
He would say, “Follow me. Let’s go back to sleep,” over and over again.
Did it work like magic? Not immediately. But after ten to fifteen minutes, our son would be making his way towards our bedroom, climbing our bed, and lying down to sleep on his own.
Keep their days stress-free
Most of the sleep specialists we talked to believe that stress can trigger night terrors in children, and recommended that we bring our son to a child psychologist. After completing a round of interviews, the psychologist told us our son’s preschool seems to be his stressor. It was a traditional preschool, and our son’s learning style didn’t seem to match with their way of teaching.
When we transferred him to a progressive preschool and visited his psychologist again shortly after, the psychologist confirmed with us that our son enjoyed going to school more, and felt less anxious. We also observed that the frequency of his night terrors dropped weeks after he started attending classes at his new school.
Here’s what I’ve learned: the only way to know the stressor(s) of our children is to ask them gently and listen without judgment. Once we have learned the stressor(s) that are affecting our children, we should do whatever it takes to lessen their exposure to it.
Good nights and sweet dreams
I genuinely hope that these ten tips I shared with you will help you address your child’s nightmares and night terrors properly. Learn from my mistakes and do what you think is best for your child. If you’re in doubt, seek the help of experts, just like what I did.
Once you know what to do, be consistent in applying them so you can see the results in less time. Above all, remember that these experiences make up just one chapter of your child’s life. They are not permanent. Trust me, the nights will come when you won’t have to deal with palpitations and panic attacks ever again.