Q. "Sometimes, in the middle of the night, my seven-year-old sits bolt upright, stares straight ahead, and screams at the top of his voice. It sounds like he is being attacked by an axe murderer! We try to comfort him, but he doesn't even know we are there. This goes on for many minutes. Then he goes back to sleep. If we wake him, he seems confused and cannot remember what he was dreaming about."
A. The reason that he cannot remember what he was dreaming about, is that he was not dreaming! What you are describing is a classic case of night terrors.
When we first fall asleep, we enter stage one sleep. We then progress through stages two and three until, after about an hour and a half, we enter our the deepest sleep, stage four. Scientists can recognise these stages by our brain-wave (EEG) patterns.
Surprisingly, we do not dream during any of these four stages of sleep. Indeed, if you wake someone up at this point, they will remember either nothing, or they might say they were "thinking".
After stage four we then suddenly shift into a completely different mode of sleep called "rapid eye movement" (REM) sleep. This is when all the dreaming occurs. If you watch someone in this stage, you will see their eyes darting from side to side. We dream for about 45 minutes, and then we go back into non-REM sleep for another hour or so. This pattern continues through the night, with the non-REM stages becoming increasingly lighter. Hence the saying "an hour before midnight is worth two after".
Nightmares occur while we are dreaming. They can be as real and as frightening as a Hollywood thriller.
Night terrors, on the other hand, occur in stage four sleep. This is also the stage in which sleepwalking and talking occur. The reason they occur is unknown, and most children grow out of them. They may be worse at times of stress.
Of course they are very disturbing to the parents and siblings, but they really don't harm the child. It's actually best if you can stand to, to just leave him alone. You even said yourself that he goes back to sleep in a short while. As for sleepwalking, the same advice applies. You do, however, want to make sure he's safe from falling down the stairs or out of a window.
Night terrors usually occur in children from 3 to 6 years of age, but sometimes go a little later. They are not an indication of any problem. You would actually be better to get your own rest during these occurrences, difficult as it sounds.
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Dr. Noel Swanson has a free newsletter on children's behavior problems and also regularly writes for Yes Parenting website.
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