So, for the longest time, Aiden has been having "dreams" at night that can wake him up. Except they seemed really scary. And we realized he wasn't really waking up. Sometimes he would cry out a little bit and then stop. Sometimes he would scream. And sometimes he would scream, thrash around, and be completely inconsolable. We would try to calm him, but it was no good. If we picked him up and reassured him, he could flip out. If he snapped out of it and woke up...well, there was no real "snapping out of it," but he would seem absolutely terrified. Even nursing didn't seem to really do much, and that's like the one single thing that *always* works. Holding him, he would seem to be unaware we had him but would fight to get free, thrashing his body all around. We would struggle with him, trying so hard to calm our little guy, and then after so long, he would stop and it would be like nothing ever happened. He would suddenly be sleeping peacefully, like nothing ever happened, but leaving us scared and wondering what was going on.
Welcome to the world of night terrors, folks.
This has been happening for months, but we only realized around Christmas that they were, in fact, night terrors. I had suspected, but we finally were sure. We did a little internet research to learn a bit more about what was going on. Of course, it's hard to know for sure what's going on, but we have a good idea.
The thing is...night terrors are, well, pretty terrifying. I'm not sure exactly how scary they are for the child, since they don't remember them, and therefore, can't tell you about it. Then there's the fact that he's only two and can't really communicate all that well, especially with a concept as complicated as "dreaming." When Aiden has an episode, he often is literally trying to climb out of the place (crib, pack 'n play, wherever he is sleeping). If he's lying down, he'll have his legs straight up in the air, kicking the crib as hard as he can...like he's trying to get away from something or kick something away from him. He'll sometimes get on his hands and knees, as if he's trying to crawl away, or hit and push the pillow, like it's something that's after him. He will scream and scream as if he is scared. This isn't an "I want attention" sound...this is a "something is trying to really hurt me, and I am SCARED out of my mind" cry. His eyes might be closed, partially open, or all the way open, but he is totally out of it and not at all aware that we are nearby. He sometimes sounds like he's trying to actually yell something, but we can't usually tell what he's trying to say. And if all of that isn't bad enough...if he somehow does wake up, he gets even more intense and seems completely terrified and confused.
As a parent, seeing this...I don't know how to explain it other than scary. Who wants to see their child like this?? And who enjoys not being able to help their child? And then...to top that off...you aren't supposed to help! After learning more, we know that helping, trying to hold him, speaking to him at all - well, it just makes it worse! Now really, how awesome is that? It is pretty near impossible to just stand there and watch him go through all of this. While you do, you can't help but feel like parent of the year. Like...yeah, my child is obviously scared to death here, but I'm just going to stand back and enjoy the show. How 'bout some popcorn? Seriously. We've even read (can't remember where now - we've done a ton of searches by now) that when you talk to him or try to soothe the child, the sound of your voice can be incorporated into the terror and scare him even more. Not a fun thought. But knowing that even talking to him to try to soothe him really just scares him more helps to NOT talk to him.
It's still hard, though. Feeling helpless is one of my least favorite things to experience as a parent. And one of the most difficult. During each episode, I have to fight back the tears as I watch him and just stand there. I hate it. Really hate it.
Here are a couple things we've learned about night terrors....
Family history of sleep problems make them more likely. There's definitely a history. Mama has had insomnia, oh, pretty much her entire life. I'm not kidding. And Daddy...he has restless leg syndrome. So, that counts, right? Family history? Check.
Being overtired makes it more likely and worse. That's true. Now, we know Aiden's never been world's greatest sleeper. But he's not a terrible sleeper, either! He's always slept fairly well...but woke fairly often. Since we realized it actually IS an allergy causing the problem (I have always claimed I thought something else was going on - and Mama was right!) and we've taken measures to help with the allergen, Aiden has been a *wonderful* sleeper! He still is up early, but it's usually at 6 now, instead of 5. And he's napping between 2-3 hours each day. The night terrors have been occurring fairly regularly, but if he misses a nap...oh you can betcha he will have some awful night terrors that night! Maybe even repeatedly. We really realized this over Christmas when there were a couple days he missed naps b/c he was too excited or we had too much planned. Those nights, we all paid for it. Over and over. When we stick to his nap and bedtime schedule...strictly stick to it...things are so much better. Since Christmas he actually stopped his night terrors. Until this past week, that is. Not sure what has changed, but he's been having them all week. And then a couple weeks ago...the one day he refused to nap because mama got him home a bit late after a playdate (I think I need to set an alarm next time!) - that was not a fun night. So, yes....lack of sleep? Definitely makes things worse.
Night terrors aren't in and of themselves a problem, but they can lead to problems, since they disrupt sleep. Um, yeah. It's one of those cyclical things that aren't so much fun. Fatigue/sleep deprivation make night terrors worse. Night terrors disrupt sleep, causing more fatigue/sleep deprivation. These things also cause a grumpy toddler who needs to nap earlier than usual...but an early nap might mean he is later even more sleep deprived, blah, blah. Good times. (You certainly can sense the sarcasm there.)
Stress and anxiety can correlate with night terrors. Now, it's hard for me to know sometimes if there is anything stressing Aiden out. Most times I am pretty sure that's not an issue, BUT sometimes the little bit of playtime between dinner and bedtime isn't all that relaxing. Enter big brother, who is trying to play with Aiden...that usually means Camden is trying to be physical (hugging or wrestling or whatever) and Aiden is trying to avoid it (because he seriously is NOT a cuddly person) or gets too excited about it. Or they're having a blast chasing each other, which means Aiden really is not calming down but quite the opposite. I'm not sure if any of these have correlated with night terrors, but since realizing this is what was happening at night (the night terrors), we've made sure the time between dinner and bed does not include activity like this. Not that he didn't have a calm bedtime routine before, but we've extended it and have made sure Camden understands why it's so important for Aiden to remain calm. That time between dinner and bed is now a time when we ALL sit down, read or something like that as a family while Aiden nurses. It's as calm as we can make it. Not sure if it helps, but it certainly makes sense. And we all prefer to be doing this together anyway. It's good for everyone.
Night terrors and sleep walking can occur together. We don't know yet, and hopefully by the time Aiden would be able to sleep walk, he'll be past these. He's still in the crib, so he can't really go anywhere. That's good because we know he's a bit safer that way. He does seem to try to get out of the crib sometimes, though he isn't doing it in a way that could be successful (while still on his back, moving his feet like he's trying to climb out or on his hands and knees).
There isn't a ton of information about night terrors, really. I mean, they are what they are (you kind of have to see it to really be able to understand what goes on), and there's only so much you can do about it. What you can do is pretty simple, really. Other than that, you wait it out. Each time it happens and over time - hoping it goes away, which it should.
For more information, though, here are some good websites that you can visit.
MedlinePlus (NLM NIH)
So, with all of this in mind, if you ever hear us say we can't do something because our toddler has to nap...know that his nap schedule is pretty crucial right now. Know we're not just blowing you off or that we're not just overbearing parents that think they can't ever get out and have fun because of that lousy naptime. Seriously, we can't miss that nap. It IS rather limiting, but we'd rather be forced to be at home every day for those hours around nap than up in the middle of the night with a terrified child. If we're visiting and you think..oh, let him stay up! I'ts [insert whatever holiday or special occasion here], let him have some fun! Know that letting him stay up and have a little extra fun isn't going to be just an inconvenience to us...but it will most likely have a huge impact on him later that night. We know this. So, please understand. We would love for him to have that extra fun...just not at the cost we know he might have to pay later. It's not personal against you; we're just trying to be good parents and make life easier and better for that little boy we all love. :) Saying he has to be in for naptime is not just an excuse. Well, I guess it kind of is. But it's a REALLY good and justifiable excuse.