Night terrors

The past two nights Moomin had episodes of night terror or “pavor nocturnus”. He had them a lot when he was younger, from 2 or 3 to around age 5. Basically, it’s a sleep disorder like sleepwalking, but instead of walking around in a confused way, the sleeping person feels a very extreme emotion of fear; absolute terror.

With Moomin, it would start with some mild coughing, and gasping or sobbing, starting out slow. Always just around 11pm or midnight, right when we were about to go to sleep ourselves. When we were tired and a bit ill tempered at having to get up.

After a bit of coughing Moomin would sit up in bed. He’d start to howl and scream. His heart would race and pound, he’d break out into a sweat, he’d be shaking and clenching his fists like he was in horrible pain.

It was really scary!

There was no way to snap him out of it or talk him down. He doesn’t really wake up, but might answer a couple of questions or babble nonsense. When he was younger it was scarier because it was hard to tell if he was actually super sick or not. It’s hard to see him terrified and apparently in pain. He’d also sometimes talk so incoherently, that was scary in itself. Last night he was saying “No!!! NO ELECTRIC!” But night terrors apparently aren’t coherent nightmares — they’re not bad dreams you can remember.

We try to comfort him, though it doesn’t help. When he was younger and we didn’t know what was happening I know sometimes we tried to snap him out of it. We’d be begging him to tell us what was wrong, what hurt, what was happening, if he was okay. I wish we had known about night terror as a sleep disorder, but I didn’t realize it till he was around 4 or 5.

It may have worked sometimes to get him to either drink something, or go to the bathroom, like it helped to snap him back into reality. Mostly though, we have to hold him and comfort him for about 20 minutes. He’d become truly conscious for about 5 seconds and then fall deeply asleep, no longer fitful and sweating.

That’s a long time!

Sometimes he’d get up and walk, or struggle to get out of our attempts to be comforting.

After he falls into normal sleep, he doesn’t remember what happened. If he woke up for a minute or two in the bathroom or living room he’d be confused and disoriented.

We had to warn people who were babysitting him. Just wait it out, hold him or reassure him he’s asleep (though that doesn’t help, it feels horrible to do nothing.)

For the last few years, his night terror episodes have been rare. A few times a year, maybe.

These episodes became somewhat less scary for me after Moomin had his appendix burst! Now *that* was scary! On the other hand, now when he has these midnight episodes, I am spared the worry that he might be dying of appendicitis. His appendix is gone already. Whew.

Anyway, if you’re a relatively new parent and your toddler or young child wakes up and screams in terror, don’t read “nightmares” into it or necessarily think they are having a severe health crisis. Also don’t assume they’re misbehaving or in hysterics. It might be night terrors — and isn’t their fault, or your fault.

It is scary and… I have to say… exasperating.

I wonder if tiny babies have this happen too, but people assume it’s colic or general infant fussiness? Surely it’s been studied.

Here’s a good description of

>pavor nocturnus from

Night terrors typically occur about 2 or 3 hours after a child falls asleep, when sleep transitions from the deepest stage of non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep, a stage where dreams occur. Usually this transition is a smooth one. But rarely, a child becomes agitated and frightened — and that fear reaction is a night terror.

During a night terror, a child might suddenly sit upright in bed and shout out or scream in distress. The child’s breathing and heartbeat might be faster, he or she might sweat, thrash around, and act upset and scared. After a few minutes, or sometimes longer, a child simply calms down and returns to sleep.

That’s exactly what we experience with Moomin. How comforting it was to find out that nothing serious was wrong, even if it does seem horrible for him to go through.

In the morning he never remembers that it happened.

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