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Family Life: How can I help get rid of my child's awful night terrors?

My six-year-old son has been suffering from night terrors for the past two-and-half years.

They occur on average four to five times a week. He has the same bedtime routine each night: he goes to bed at around 8.30pm and the terror will occur about an hour after he has fallen asleep. He is quite an active child and very highly strung and has been since he was a baby. He is also quite a sensitive child and one who demands a lot of attention. I have another child of three and although they both get the same amount of my attention my son seems to want more.

Are these nightmares occurring because of him feeling insecure or am I doing something wrong? Each night I sit half-watching the TV and half listening up the hall. After each one I analyse the day and ask myself have I done or said something to trigger the nightmare. He is also acting up at school, similar to the child in your November 1 issue, yet he loves school.

Should I be concerned about these nightmares or will he just grow out of them? I have talked to my GP about this but have had no answers or help.

Night terrors are more common than you might expect with between one and five children in every hundred suffering from them.

Their occurrence peaks in children aged between three and four and gradually drops off in frequency as children get older, usually stopping entirely by the time they reach adolescence.

Night terrors are also different to nightmares. In your query you have described your son's night-time disturbances as both night terrors and nightmares. In his case, based on what you say, they seem to be very classical night terrors.

Sleep is normally divided into two categories: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM). Non-REM sleep is further divided into four stages, progressing from one to four.

Night terrors occur during the transition from stage three non-REM sleep to stage four non-REM sleep, usually beginning 60-90 minutes after your child falls asleep.

Nightmares, on the other hand, usually occur during REM sleep and most children will experience them as a bad (or very bad) dream that they can recall when they wake.

Night terrors can be identified by extreme fear and often very intense crying that occur regularly during sleep.

Your child might appear to be awake but is actually asleep and, in fact, can be very difficult to arouse during the night terror.

Most children who have had a night terror will not remember it the following morning. If they do get woken just after the night terror they rarely have a memory of a dream.

During the night terror you might also notice that your son's heart rate and breathing rate are increased and he may be quite sweaty.

You don't describe how he actually is during his night terrors but I would guess that he seems confused, disorientated and doesn't respond to you or your efforts to comfort him.

You also don't mention how terrifying the experience appears to be for him and also how terrifying it must be for you to see him so distressed.

Sometimes there is a history of night terrors, so check if anyone in your family or your husband's family had them as a child.

However, night terrors are most often caused by stressful life events and children not getting enough sleep.

So, while it is unlikely to be any direct fault of yours, you can certainly help to identify stressors in your son's life and help him with his bedtime routine.

For example, I think it would be worthwhile trying to get him to bed a bit earlier as he might already be over-tired by 8.30pm.

You also mention that your son is a very sensitive, active and highly strung boy. It may be, then, that he experiences what might be insignificant stresses for others in a particularly intense way. He might, for example, find school a very stressful experience if he regularly gets into trouble there.

The bad news, I am afraid, is that there is no known treatment or solution for night terrors. Most children will grow out of them, but how quickly that will happen I can't tell you.

The best thing to do, in the meantime, is to help him reduce his stress, or manage it, and to try to ensure he gets enough sleep.

Practical relaxation techniques should help your son to wind down, both generally, and especially in the hour before he goes to bed. Massage can be good for this, as can relaxing music.

You could also try a bath before bed or extended story time to try to take his mind off the pressures he may have felt through the day.

You seem very worried, from how you describe the problem, indeed I can guess that it is hard not to be hyper-vigilant, anticipating his night terror each night.

You may find that you, too, are generally anxious throughout the day. So, the more you can relax and reduce your own anxiety the better you (and he) will cope.

As I mentioned, most children will outgrow night terrors so in the meantime, a little comfort goes a long way.

Gentle touches from reassuring parents are all that most children need to get through this frightening experience.

Health & Living