Startled awake from a deep sleep by my terrified, screaming daughter, I ran to her bedroom as fast as I could. It was 1:20 a.m. She sounded like someone was seriously hurting her. Every possibility played through my mind as I made the dash to her bedroom just down the hall.
Our youngest daughter, age 4, appeared to be having a terrifying dream. She was hot and sweaty with eyes wide with fear. She looked right through me. I talked calmly to her, touched her little face (normally something that calms her when she is upset) and tried to get in close. But she would have none of it as she continued to scream despite our best efforts. We felt helpless unable to comfort our affectionate daughter who normally loved to be hugged and cuddled. After several minutes (that seemed like forever) she finally calmed down and went back to sleep as if nothing had happened.
We, on the other hand, were wide awake trying to think back to see if there was any reason for scary dreams from our evening activities. We couldn’t find one. Our older daughter had always been very anxious about going to sleep so we were careful about the books we read in the evening, careful about the games we played and careful about the programs we watched on TV. There were no changes in her life or stressors that we knew about. It took me forever to go to sleep even though it was clear that our daughter had just experienced what is called a night terror. As she slept, my heart raced and I worried about what could have caused it and if she would wake up again…
These screaming episodes became quite frequent in our house. During the day our daughter continued to be her warm, affectionate self and chattered away happily as usual. But at night, screaming would tear us all awake and we found ourselves ineffective in providing comfort. Remarkably, she had no memory of the episodes. In the morning, she didn’t believe us when we told her what had happened during the night.
It began to impact our ability to sleep. It was very stressful being awakened in this way and then trying to calm down after with hearts racing. We took steps to make her feel safe like using a night light, keeping her door open, keeping “Bones” and “Pooh Bear” nearby, and we ensured a calm routine before bed. None of these useful ideas relieved us of the nighttime screams.
After several episodes of this, and finding our daughter non-responsive to most things that we tried, in desperation, we brought out a fan. We sometimes used it in the summer on very hot, humid nights. White noise had a calming effect on our older daughter, so we thought we would give it a try. During one of her night terrors we turned the fan on and in less than two minutes she stopped screaming completely. My husband and I looked at each other with hope and wonder deciding right there to try the fan the next time she woke us all with her screams.
It turned out that the fan was magic! While she had all of the classic signs of a night terror, she was simply hot. For years it was on every night without fail. We took a fan with us when we went away because it made such a difference for her. Without it, she became nervous that she would wake up other people and relied on the fan too for her peace of mind. She is 10 years old now and still prefers to be cooler than the rest of us though the fan is no longer on every night. The “magical” fan brought us many nights of peace. We are convinced that without it we would have stumbled to her room, feeling panicked, many more nights.
What have you tried to help your children go back to sleep after waking from a night terror or nightmare?
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About this guest blogger:
Bonnie Hewitt, RN is a supervisor with the Early Years Health Program. Although she has 27 years of experience working with families of young children, she turns to colleagues for parenting advice. She has 2 lovely girls who are tweens.