My lovely boy (back in the good books now :-)) has had night terrors on and off since he was five. If you have ever experienced someone having a night terror then you will know that the terror is not just theirs, it is ours too.
Night terrors are not nightmares, they are not ‘bad dreams’ they are different for each person I believe but Alexander’s go a little something like this, he wails a primeval kind of keening, he freaks out, tries to get away from us, says he needs his Mum or Dad (when we are right there with him), if he is standing then he will try to run away, if he is in bed then he might throw himself around a little. This can last for anything from three to twenty minutes.
The good thing about night terrors is that he doesn’t remember them in the morning. I still remember bad dreams I had when I was little but he doesn’t know anything about the terror he felt last week – for that I am very grateful. I, however, will never forget the look of hysterical fear on his face as he begged me to find his Mum.
The first time he had one of these episodes, he had just started school and when it had happened every night for a month I spoke to my brother about it who explained it to me thus – the part of his little brain which has evolved very little since caveman days has perceived some threat (starting school in this case) and doesn’t know whether to go ‘HELP, HELP! SABRE TOOTH TIGER!!’ or ‘Oh, this is totally normal, I just started school’ so has gone for the option that will give him the better chance of survival if the threat does turn out to be life threatening.
We have several different tactics to deal with them. If he is having them regularly (the starting school period lasted from September until Christmas and he had a night terror EVERY night!) then we note the time he is having them (usually within an hour of falling asleep and always around the same time) and go in to wake him up ten minutes before his episodes usually happen. We get him to sit up, have a drink of water, tell him we love him very much and then coorie him back in – just enough to stir him. The thinking behind this is that there are four stages of sleep and we must pass through them all before reaching our deepest sleep stage. People who have night terrors jump stages by falling asleep too quickly. In most people, when this happens you will feel your body jump – I sometimes feel like I have stepped out in front of a car or falling off a cliff – this resets you back to go through all the stages. Alexander’s body doesn’t seem to do this – he goes straight to the ‘SABRE TOOTH TIGER!!!’ thing!
At the moment he is having them sporadically so it’s not so easy to predict when they are coming. Quite often the first we know about it is when he tears through the living room in a panic. When this happens I grab him, hold him tight, guide him back to bed, or at least to his bedroom and try to talk him down. I usually try to stick with soothing but firm tones, tell him I am here and that I know he has a feeling but he doesn’t know what it is but it’s ok. What else do you say? Eventually, he calms down and everything is quiet again and I feel like I have run a marathon!
Sometimes he just has a mini-freak-out and appears, still asleep, in the living room. He curls up on my knee and clings to me until it passes and he’s zonked out again. I have to admit that as much as I hate the thought that something nasty has sparked this off, I do love the cuddling. It won’t be long until he can’t really fit on my knee so I am cherishing this bit.