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Night Terrors

When Matt and I first wanted to help Simon learn to fall asleep on his own, I brought home Richard Ferber’s Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems. I vividly recall reading the introductory section of the chapter on night terrors and thinking to myself, “Well, that sounds dreadful. I’m glad it’s rare and I won’t have to deal with it.”

I may have spoken too soon, because I’m almost certain Simon had an episode Sunday night, and if I’m right, he’s had one or two others besides.

The good news is that he would not remember a night terror and so has no fear of going to bed; the bad news is that they are truly awful to observe and there isn’t much to be done to prevent them besides keeping your child well rested and on a predictable schedule.

Here’s what happened Sunday night: I came home from our Passover seder at around 8:00 p.m. to put Simon down for the night. He jabbered away happily as I changed his diaper and put on his pajamas, he settled into my lap for story-time, and he was ready and eager to go to sleep when I put him in his crib at 8:30-a bit later than normal, but not terribly so. After I left his room, I didn’t hear a peep as he fell asleep.

At around midnight, Matt and I heard some fussing. More nights than not, Simon cries a bit at around 11:30 – 11:45 p.m. He usually settles back down on his own, and it’s so common we jokingly call it “the midnight squawk.” Only Sunday night he didn’t settle down. He seemed to grow more agitated over time, and when Matt entered the room and tried to soothe him, it escalated.

When this happened that I can remember in the past, I noticed that Simon had his eyes open, but didn’t seem to see or recognize me. And as soon as I touched him to pick him up, he arched away from me and thrashed wildly. Honestly, he looked possessed, and I was confused and worried that my attempts to soothe him only made things worse. Once Matt tip-toed into the room during a milder episdode to see what Simon was up to and described his motion as “swimming” in his crib.

Sunday night it took a good 20-30 minutes before Simon went back to sleep, a situation that sent me straight to the literature last night. Ferber described Simon’s behavior to a tee. Those midnight squawks? Those are mild confusional arousals when Simon gets “stuck” between his second deep sleep cycle and the lighter one that follows it. Most babies will awake briefly, roll over or shift in bed, and go back to sleep quickly at this juncture. But Simon gets a bit confused, and so often takes 1-5 minutes to fall back asleep, during which time he appears awake but isn’t.

And Sunday night? That was a more severe confusional arousal, and quite possibly a night terror. Despite the name, Simon wasn’t dreaming or terrified of anything. He was simply stuck in an odd physiological state made worse by our interfering with it. Here’s what one online source has to say about “helping” with a night terror:

Of course, your first instinct will be to comfort him, but your efforts will most likely be futile (remember, he’s not really awake and he’s not aware of your presence). You just have to wait it out and make sure he doesn’t hurt himself. Don’t speak to him or try to soothe him, and don’t try to shake or startle him awake or physically restrain him – all of which could lead to more frantic behavior. In 15 to 20 minutes, your child should calm down, curl up, and fall into a deep sleep again.

Our new goal is to try an ounce of prevention. From now on, we need to keep the house quiet after 11:00 (no getting ready for bed and pacing over squeaky floor-boards then), and we really need to get Simon to bed before he’s totally shot. Household noise or interruptions can make it difficult for a child to transition from deep sleep to lighter sleep, and being over-tired to begin with contributes to children fighting the shift to lighter sleep during the night and therefore getting “stuck:” between cycles.

Finally, if things don’t improve, we may need to wean Simon off of his pacifier, as searching for it is his nighttime “job” and another possible contributor to his confusional arousals. I’m optimistic it won’t come to that as last night Simon went to bed on time, we tucked in ourselves at 10:30, and so far as I know our house was silent all night.

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