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The Night Terror Mystery

Your guide to the ages and stages of development

When your child wakes up screaming in the middle of the night, you might think he's simply had a bad dream. But experts say something else might be going on. A child who wakes up screaming, thrashing, kicking, sweating, or moaning is more likely to be experiencing a problem known as night terrors.

While bad dreams are upsetting, they rarely cause major problems. But when a child suffers from night terrors, he enters a state not unlike sleepwalking where he may stumble out of bed and hurt himself, or even try to leave the house. He might experience other symptoms like incoherence, hallucinations, crying, rapid heartbeat and breathing, and dilated pupils. An episode of night terrors can last anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes and usually occurs during a phase of deep non-REM sleep within an hour after the child goes to sleep. Where a nightmare might prevent a child from going back to sleep, night terrors end abruptly and the child will likely remember nothing when he wakes up.

Little is known about the causes of night terrors, but health experts agree that these episodes are not caused by psychological issues. What is known is that boys are more likely to suffer from night terrors than girls, that the problem is most prevalent in children ages 5-7 and that night terrors tend to run in the family. The good news is that most children will outgrow the problem by the time they are 10.

Despite the mystery surrounding night terrors, there are ways you can help your child (and yourself) deal with this problem. According to Focus on the Family's Complete Book of Baby and Childcare (Tyndale), you can hug your child gently and reassure him that everything is alright. If he's resistant to physical contact, stand back and wait out the episode. Experts also suggest doing what you can to prevent your child from hurting himself, such as picking up toys or other things he could trip on during the night, locking outside doors and windows, and keeping baby gates in place to prevent a tumble down the stairs. Don't try to wake your child by shaking or yelling. Instead, gently lead your child back to his bed. If your child talks during his episode, don't argue or disagree with the things he says. Some research shows that this may intensify the episode. Most importantly, stay calm. Your stable presence can make an enormous difference in the duration and intensity of the episodes.

If night terrors become frequent (more than a few times a week) or are interfering with family life, talk with your child's doctor. You can also find more information on the Web at nightterrors.org, babycenter.com, and intelihealth.com.

?Tamra Orr, writer, mother of four

Bedtime Comforts

If your child is having trouble falling asleep or complains of nightmares, try these ideas to soothe and relax her:

? Play quiet music at bedtime.

Your child may have developed a fear of falling asleep. Soothing music can calm restlessness.

? Record yourself reading your child's favorite story or singing a few favorite songs and play the tape at bedtime.

The sound of your voice can comfort a child who's afraid.

? Help your child find or draw a picture of an angel or Jesus and hang it above her bed.

Tell her it's a reminder that Jesus is watching over her and keeping her safe while she sleeps.

? Include a request for a good night's sleep in your child's bedtime prayers.

Let her know she can ask for God's peace if she wakes up during the night, too.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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