After a while, he quiets and lies down, apparently of his own accord.
This pattern may replay several times a week, or only once in a while. Regardless, your reaction as a parent is always the same: confusion, concern and a sense of helplessness.
This pattern of behaviours is commonly known as "night terrors." Night terrors are not fully understood yet by the medical community, but for some good explanations, check out the articles from Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, as well as from KidsHealth.org, and Pediatrics.About.com.
Two of our four boys have night terrors, and we've experienced scenarios like the one above many times. It was a relief to finally figure out what was going on, but it took some work, as the boys don't manifest the same pattern during a night terror.
So, in addition to all the expert advice, here's what we've discovered:
- We don't try (any more) to wake our boys.
- That said, we've found our one son quiets more quickly if I (mummy) stay by him and quietly tell him I'm there and that we'll work on "it" together (I don't know what "it" is that he's experiencing, but that vague term seems to work).
- BUT, our other son requires absolutely no interaction whatsoever. No talking, no touching. If I do talk or touch, he becomes much more agitated and screams louder.
1st lesson learned: children may respond differently to different kinds/degrees of parental interaction during a night terror. Unfortunately, only trial and error will clarify this.
- During a night terror, our one son matches the classic description (behaviour, duration, contributing factors) --figuring out what was going on with him was relatively easy.
- BUT, our other son's night terrors do not follow the classic pattern. His screaming will go on for up to an hour. He may have several episodes in one night. Sometimes he even interacts with us to a certain extent, though not in a "normal" kind of way (e.g. we can't make sense of what he's saying; he asks for water but doesn't want it; he talks to us but while lying down with his eyes shut).
2nd lesson learned: even though it doesn't match the standard description, it might still be a night terror. Trust your gut.
- A trip to the toilet (for our out-of-diapers son) quite often seems to head off a night terror. This was a tip from friends who endured unbelievable night terrors until they came up with this tactic.
- Hearing many other parents share their stories and how they've coped with night terrors is amazingly reassuring. It's helped us feel like we're responding the right --and the realistic-- way.
And, above all, stay calm and try to ride them out (4th lesson there?). Anyone have any tips or stories to share?