By Dr. Noel Swanson
Sometimes, in the middle of the night, my seven-year-old sits bolt upright, stares straight ahead, and screams at the top of his voice. It sounds like he is being attacked by an axe murderer! We try to comfort him, but he doesn’t even know we are there. This goes on for many minutes. Then he goes back to sleep. If we wake him, he seems confused and cannot remember what he was dreaming about.
The reason that he cannot remember what he was dreaming about, is that he was not dreaming! What you are describing is a classic case of night terrors.
When we first fall asleep, we enter stage one sleep. We then progress through stages two and three until, after about an hour and a half, we enter our the deepest sleep, stage four. Scientists can recognize these stages by our brain-wave (EEG) patterns.
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”.
It is when we dream that we can have nightmares. These are usually Hollywood style productions in full color that seem very real at the time.
Night terrors, on the other hand, occur in stage four sleep. This is also the stage in which sleepwalking and talking occur. The reason they occur is unknown, and most children grow out of them. They may be worse at times of stress.
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.
Night terrors are common in children aged 3 to 6, and may continue even beyond then. They do not indicate that there is anything seriously wrong with your child. Hard though it may be at the time, the best tactic really is to ignore them, and to try to get some sleep yourself.
Dr. Noel Swanson, Consultant Child Psychiatrist and author of The GOOD CHILD Guide, specializes in children's behavioural difficulties and writes a free newsletter for parents. He can be contacted through his website on Expert Parenting Advice.