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Child Behavior Problems: My Son Has Night Terrors

Jan 23, 2008
Q. "My seven year old boy sometimes awakens screaming in the middle of the night. When we go into his room he is sitting straight up in bed, staring straight ahead. We try to calm him down but he isn't even aware that we are in his room. After a few minutes, he goes back to sleep. If we awaken him, he doesn't even know why we're there, as he remembers nothing about his dream."

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 recognize these stages by our brain-wave (EEG) patterns.

It is interesting to note that we don't dream during any of these stages. If you awaken someone during this time, they probably won't remember anything. The only thing they may say is that they were "thinking".

As the four stages fade, we fall into a totally different sleep mode known as "rapid eye movement" (REM). This is the time in which we dream. If you could watch someone during REM sleep, you'd see their eyes darting from side to side. Throughout the night we go in and out of REM sleep. We usually dream for approximately 45 minutes before returning to non- REM sleep, which lasts for an hour or so, and then back to a REM sleep state. As the night progresses the non-REM stages become lighter. This explains an old 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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Fed up with your children's behavioral problems? Find the solutions from Dr. Noel Swanson's Child Behavior Problems website and get a FREE one-hour audio packed with tips, tricks and advice.
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