My son is eyeballing me, eyes wide and filled with panic and anxiety. He screams “no! no! no!” as if I’m the devil incarnate and backtracks into the corner of the room, legs kicking, fists punching and he desperately makes a run for the hallway, slamming the door behind him. He flings himself to the ground with back arched and is completely inconsolable, howling at the top of his lungs. And then suddenly as if it was a dream, he is asleep on his tummy.
Sometimes he can be going for at least 30 minutes and all I can do is make sure he is safe. Yes, even with his eyes open, his ability to run and talk to me coherently, I came to understand my son was asleep.
After a lot of research on the internet, and discussions with friends, Plunket and my GP, I discovered he was having both night terrors and nightmares. And for most of last year, (on two occasions for three months solid at a time, perhaps in line with his developmental milestones), he’s been having night terrors and nightmares every night.
It was exhausting and the sleep deprivation is very real. Julian and I were clashing more and getting resentful and I would often escape to my volleyball, dreading returning home to the disrupted sleep. My desperation reminded me of Martin’s new born months when I was in zombie survival mode, permanently living in my dressing gown and failing at executing the most basic grooming practices such as brushing my teeth or hair. I even started to feel my thought patterns going, feeling guilty and a failure like when I struggled with postnatal depression. Would we always have to sleep with him? Is going to him three to six times in the night the new normal?
What’s the difference between nightmares and night terrors?
Both are fairly common and part of your child’s normal development but are quite different to each other. You can read up between the difference between night terrors and nightmares in these articles as well as what you can do to help.
Night terrors, happen in the first three to four hours of falling asleep, and your toddler is inconsolable. However, once it’s over they go back to sleep quickly and they have no recollection of the events that just unfolded. It can be likened to sleepwalking. But Martin was running. At times he was running so hard he would clothesline himself on the bars of his cot or flip himself over the rail, so we put him on a mattress on the floor for safety reasons.
Nightmares happen in the second half of the night, and your toddler will be awake and genuinely scared of what he had dreamed. He can be consoled and comforted and if you ask him they will probably tell you what they are scared of.
I found it very hard to tell the difference until one particular night he managed to crack his head on the door after screaming for 30 minutes. The initial shock of hitting his head caused him to fully wake up. In no time, he was giving cutesy giggles, and high fives to daddy. The change in his temperament was hugely apparent.
Coming home after dark, was also noticeably worse. You could see the fear in his eyes engulfing him, as his imagination danced with all the different shapes and shadows of the night. Martin would also procrastinate at at bedtime because he was scared of going to sleep and would also scream at me that he was awake at 4:30 am sometimes, determined to start his day to avoid falling back asleep. When he was really worked up with his terrors, his eczema also flared up through the stress and he'd also scratch ferociously, throwing another challenge at us. How do we manage his skin while he was technically still asleep? We have now resurrected the Scratch-Me-Nots to deal with that, a tool that was very useful when Martin was a very itchy baby.
So what did I do to help my son?
So dealing with nightmares and night terrors have very different approaches.
Night terrors, both plunket and my GP told me there is little you can do apart from making sure they keep safe during their episode.
Plunket were a great emotional comfort on the phone and additionally advised to try to arouse him before the night terror happened (which I struggled to consistently do because there was no pattern as to when he would have them.) The articles stated previously, mention night terrors can also be related to bladder development, and to wake your child fully in the night and take them to the toilet.
Frazzled and feeling exhausted after taking turns sleeping with my son, my husband penned a post in his Kiwi Daddy’s facebook group asking others if anyone had any solutions for night terrors. A man replied talking of his wife’s business The Almost Hippy, with dōTERRA essential oils which has had great success with night terrors in Australia. I connected with Christina, who was very empathetic to my situation having also experienced with her children. You might be skeptical, but I was willing to try anything. To be honest, for the hardest months we noticed a definite improvement diffusing the oils and applying straight to his spine and feet.
With nightmares, my son kept telling me he’s scared of the dark and of monsters. So I read up on articles on toddler anxietys, and how to help your toddler to sleep. We did the following to make Martin feel more secure:
using a night light (see picture to the right, Martin named him "Burger")
trying a sleep training clock
giving a torch
avoiding books and tv that might scare him
listening to calming story CDs.
give him an attachment object (for us Martin was going through an Elmo phase so got him a plush Elmo and he took him everywhere)
using positive visualisation (spoke of a world called "Elmo's World" and described it so he had something to focus on going to sleep
It took me four months to try and figure out what was going on, so I'm hoping you as parents have a heads up about this age bracket and the challenges with sleep you may face.
Martin still has night terrors every now and again, and seems to be going through another period of interrupted sleep. Sometimes even the most curious subject matter can cause him run into our room petrified or wake three times in the night.
I'm a lot calmer now, a big factor being that I know what I'm dealing with and that he's going to be ok. Worst case scenario I might just need to wait it out with him screaming at the top of his lungs for 30 minutes. It’s the unknown that throws you and begin questioning everything you’ve done as a parent. But know, that probably other parents are struggling as much as you are. (We as parents just don't seem to talk about the hard times.) I also take my hat off to those parents who have had sleep issues with their children from day one.
Children have huge imaginations and I’ve had to change my way of thinking of dreading the night. Now I sit myself down next to him to ensure he doesn't hurt himself, put on my headphones and catch up on my Netflix.