A blood-chilling scream shatters the night silence. I bolt upright shaking the sleep from my eyes – then there’s a second scream. Wide awake now, I leap from my bed and peer into the darkness. There, in the murky black, I can discern a shadowy figure. Two-year-old Denali sits in her bed, awake yet not awake.The wild look, hysterical screaming, and thousand-yard stare are all too familiar, I’ve seen them before – three decades ago with my daughter Erin.
Realizing that my granddaughter is having a night terror, I stand by her bed, patiently, quietly waiting. In moments she calms, and I pick her up. Still crying I carry her to the rocker, and soon she is sound asleep.
This could be a long twelve days, I think as I tuck her in. Denali, brother Dane, and sister Caroline are staying with us while Mom, Dad, and baby Elias are on a business trip, and this is just the first night. Returning to my bed, I try to sleep.
The night terrors return the next night and the next, and the night after that. By the fifth night, Denali catches Dane’s cold and runs a fever. For three nights she wakes, crying, but mostly it is the fever, a little Tylenol and all is well. Thinking we are past the problem I relax, but then comes the wild night.
Denali, having whipped the cold, feels much better. She returns to her usual active self. So busy that she won’t nap, so at bedtime, I rock an exhausted little girl, who quickly falls asleep.
That was easy; I think as I tuck her in – wow was I wrong.
The night terrors return with a vengeance, lasting ten minutes. Ignoring my experience, I pick her up, trying to console her – but she fights it. Only after we walk the house for several minutes does she calm down. During this episode, she cries for her Mommy for the first time.
In the morning a solution appears, it comes out of the blue completely unrecognized by me. In our toybox, Denali finds an old McDonald’s toy, a four-inch figure of a Berenstain Bear – Mama Bear. Serendipitously that morning we read Berenstain Bears Go On A Ghost Walk (Stan & Jan Berenstain, 2005). The book is a hit, Denali repeatedly asks me to read it, which I do, although, she is only interested in the five illustrations that show both Mama and a baby bear. Denali excitedly points and talks to the baby. She shouts “mama bear” holding the toy figure against the illustrations of Mama Bear.
Something in those illustrations clicked in her two-year-old brain; she gleefully takes Mama Bear to bed, and we have no night terrors. Not that night, or for the rest of her stay. Looking back, this unassuming piece of plastic solved the terror problem, at least for the remaining four nights.
So what causes night terrors?
In toddlers, night terrors are quite common. Similar to sleepwalking, the child appears to be awake, yet is still asleep. With my daughter, I learned that it is best not to wake them, rather simply wait for the episode to calm down.
Web MD lists five causes –
In this case, Denali was under the stress of homesickness, although she couldn’t express it. On top of that, she had a fever. When the fever cleared, she refused to nap and became sleep deprived – truly the motherload of causative agents.
What fixed it?
Well, nothing that I did. The fever running its course disappeared, but more importantly, Denali developed a way to talk about her Mommy and baby Elias. The Mama Bear figure became a temporary surrogate, and for a few nights, Denali’s night terrors disappeared.
Being a common issue, what can parents do?
There is not a lot you can do. Appearing about 90 minutes after the child goes to sleep, they may last but a minute or two, or they might last nearly a half hour. Your child won’t recognize you and will resist comforting, so the best thing is to stay close and wait them out. Since they might thrash around, you should make their room safe. Finally, try to keep a consistent bedtime and waking schedule. If the episodes continue for several weeks, consult your pediatrician.
As scary as they can appear, don’t be traumatized by night terrors. Just be patient and comforting.
David L Dahl
When I’m not being Bugga (grandpa) I do some woodworking and write children’s books. My latest is Olivia’s Story:Protector of the Realm.
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