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Children and Night Terrors

By Noel Swanson

Q. "My 7-year old son wakes up periodically in the middle of the night. We find him sitting bolt upright, staring straight ahead, and screaming at the top of his lungs. He sounds like he's being viciously attacked. This goes on for a while, during which we try to console him. He goes back to sleep without knowing we were even there. If we decide to awaken him, he appears confused, and doesn't remember his dreams".

A. He can't remember his dream because it wasn't a dream. He was having a night terror.

Scientists have studied brain wave (EEG) patterns, and concluded that we go through a series of four stages while falling asleep. We start at stage one and progress through the third and fourth stages. Within about 90 minutes we go into our deepest sleep.

Surprisingly, we do not dream during any of these four stages of sleep. Indeed, if you wake someone up at this point, they will remember either nothing, or they might say they were "thinking".

After stage four we then suddenly shift into a completely different mode of sleep called "rapid eye movement" (REM) sleep. This is when all the dreaming occurs. If you watch someone in this stage, you will see their eyes darting from side to side. We dream for about 45 minutes, and then we go back into non-REM sleep for another hour or so. This pattern continues through the night, with the non-REM stages becoming increasingly lighter. Hence the saying "an hour before midnight is worth two after".

If we have nightmares, they occur while we are dreaming. They can be full blown horror movie experiences and very frightening.

Night terrors are something different altogether. They happen in stage four of sleep. Sleepwalkers and talkers are active during this stage as well. No one knows what causes night terrors, but fortunately most children do outgrow them. Sometimes stress seems to amplify them.

Although very alarming, and most distressing to the rest of the family, night terrors cause no harm to the child himself. Indeed, if you can possibly bear it, the best tactic is to not wake him. As you have said, after a while, he just goes back to sleep by himself. The same also applies to sleepwalking, when the goal is simply to make sure the child is safe in his wanderings, and. that he cannot fall down the stairs or out of a window.

Children aged from 3 to 6 are usually the ones who experience night terrors. Sometimes they continue for a little longer. Of course they are hard to ignore, but it truly is best not to awaken them. You need your rest too, although it is difficult to sleep through a night terror event.

About The Author

Noel Swanson

For more articles about child behavior and for his excellent book, why not visit Dr. Noel Swanson's website He also does a free newsletter which is well worth reading.


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