People refer to night terrors when describing lots of different episodes of crying at night, most commonly people are referring to a confusional event which occur in babies aged 4 months onwards.
This is due to the fact that after 4 months babies quickly fall into a deep sleep (stage IV of sleep) at bed time (in as little as 30 minutes) this deep sleep lasts 60-90 minutes, after this time another sleep cycle occurs but unlike the day time sleep this transition is from a deep sleep cycle to another deep sleep cycle.
Babies will awaken briefly as adults do and they need to go back to sleep, but your baby is actually only half awake.
As half of their brain is trying to go back to sleep and half of their brain is trying to wake up, this can lead to a confusional event and lots of crying or just a grizzle and roll around the cot and a re-settle.
Dr Richard Ferber has identified these confusional events in his paediatric sleep disorder centre in Boston USA.
Since your baby is not truly awake during such an episode there is little you can do to comfort them, and they are not dreaming they won’t remember it in the morning.
Let the episode run its course, don’t shake them awake or try to wake them from the episode.
Try to remain calm and soothe your baby in their cot as much as you can so they make the transition more smoothly. Consider bed time 15 minutes earlier if it continues to happen as it can be a sign your baby is over tired.
An event like this can last 5 minutes to 40 minutes and would occur within the first 4 hours of being in bed.
A true night terror doesn’t usually occur until toddler age and is most common from age 10 years +.
A night terror is more sudden, there is no build up – your child will sit up screaming in their bed or run from their bed crying but they can’t tell you what they are dreaming about afterwards as they were not dreaming, they were not in the REM state of sleep.
Most commonly they are confused about why they are awake, and like confusional events in babies these night terrors usually occur in the first half of the night when sleep is deep.
Nightmares more commonly occur in the second half of the night when sleep is lighter and more cycles of REM sleep occur. Nightmares can be recalled and your child will be comforted by you.
If your child is a 3 years + and having night terrors commonly, you may look for a psychological reason, often a child is feeling anxious about something in their life, they struggle to smoothly transition from one cycle of sleep IV to another and night terrors can occur.
It might be something as basic as moving house, or starting school, or parents separating, or a change in teacher – every child is different, and giving your child 20 minutes before bed time to process their day and verbalise how things are making them feel can make sure they go to sleep less stressed and anxious and will sleep more soundly.
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