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Night Terrors in Babies: What They Are and What To Do

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Nightmares are a normal part of life for a lot of people, especially younger children. If this isn’t your first child, then you’ve probably experienced nightmares with your other children, but night terrors are something different.

Night terrors tend to leave your child inconsolable, only fading with time. It can make you feel powerless to see your baby crying, so knowing what night terrors in babies are, what causes them, and what you can do about them, is a huge help for most moms.

What are night terrors?

Night terrors are similar to nightmares but worse

Symptoms of night terrors might include:

  • Suddenly sitting straight up in bed
  • Screaming, shouting or crying out
  • Breathing fast, flushes, sweating or other anxious symptoms
  • Rapid, thrashing movements or spasms
  • Actual fear symptoms, being scared of ‘something’

Night terrors are more likely to happen when your baby is:

  • Tired or ill
  • Starting a new medicine
  • In an unfamiliar environment or being taken away from home
  • Not getting enough sleep over a long term period
  • Stress, from life events or illness

Almost every child will have nightmares at some point in their lives, usually between the ages of 4 and 12, but they can start from as early as 18 months old.

Night terrors on the other hand only occur in around 1 in 20 children, with an increasing likelihood as they get closer to 3 years old. They’re more likely in boys, and also more likely if night terrors run in the family. Three-quarters of babies who have night terrors have someone in their close family who has also had night terrors.

Night terrors can occur only once, or they might reoccur several times over a few months. In the vast majority of cases, night terrors will simply stop as your baby’s nervous system changes whilst they grow.

What triggers night terrors in babies?

Night terrors are caused by your baby’s nervous system being overstimulated whilst they’re sleeping.

Sleep happens in several phases, 1, 2, 3, and REM.

Your baby will progress through these stages in sequence, multiple times whilst they sleep. Normal sleep cycles can take anywhere from an hour to two, slowly getting longer as they spend more time asleep.

Dreams, and nightmares, always happen when in deep REM sleep, but night terrors happen after that when your baby is in deep non-REM sleep.

Night terrors aren’t dreams, they’re a fear reaction that happens as your baby’s body changes from REM sleep to non-REM sleep cycles.

How do I stop my baby’s night terrors?

As hard as it is to hear, there’s very little you can do for your child when they’re having a night terror.

Night terrors mostly just go away in time. After a few minutes, most night terrors will fade and your baby will just lie down and go back to sleep as if nothing had happened.

Because night terrors occur whilst your child is asleep, they’re not likely to remember them afterward. This is one of the major markers that your child is having night terrors and not nightmares.

Of course, if your baby is young enough, they won’t be able to communicate that they’ve remembered nightmares, but you’ll be able to tell by seeing how your baby feels when they wake up.

You shouldn’t wake your child when they’re having a night terror. It doesn’t help them feel better. In fact, your child is likely to wake up feeling anxious and confused and might find it hard to get back to sleep, which will make night terrors more likely the following night.

Because you can’t do anything for night terrors, it’s best to try and prevent them from happening in the first place.

The best way to do this is to make sure that your baby is adequately rested, going to bed early and unstressed.

If you notice the night terrors tend to stick to a pattern, for example recurring at the same time every night, you could wake your child up for a few minutes half an hour before the night terrors are due to start. This will have the effect of resetting their sleep schedule and might stop the terrors from occurring.

Should I see a doctor about my child’s night terrors?

The main issue when considering whether to go to the doctors about night terrors is how it’s affecting your child’s sleep. Apparently, 1 in 2 children is affected by their night terrors enough to consider talking to the pediatrician.

If they’re recurring, or you’re concerned about your baby’s welfare, always talk to your doctor. They may be able to give you the advice to reduce the frequency or effect of these night terrors.

When do night terrors go away

Almost all children outgrow their night terrors naturally, as their bodies, brains and nervous systems mature.

You can expect night terrors will cease to be an issue once your child hits adolescence, at the absolute latest.

Whilst they’re obviously concerning, night terrors in babies aren’t going to affect the health of your child unduly, as long as they’re still getting enough sleep.

Did your baby suffer from night terrors? How was the first experience? How did you know it was a night terror and not a nightmare? Share your stories below so that other moms in your situation can deal with it better. Every story helps!

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