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Newborn and Infant Care

Sleep walking and Night Terrors

06/04/1999

Question:

As a child I experienced sleep walking, our pediatrician has told us that this condition can be hereditary. We have two children, one is an infant 9 months olds the other a preschooler... The infant appears to have night terrors, cring and yelling in the middle of the night, every night for 6 weeks now, what if anything can be done and is sleep walking sometimes linked to night terrors. Thanks We have already tried Benadryl -did not work- at the recommendation of our pediatrician.

Thanks

Answer:

Parents certainly have a challenge when their children awake with nightmares or terrors. Another strategy is to try to determine what may be triggering the nightmare and to try to avoid repeated exposure. Many children, especially preschool age children, experience some type of sleep disorder.

Nightmares and night terrors are two different types of sleep disorders. Depending in which of the two parts of the sleep cycle the disorder occurs and some of the behaviors that are demonstrated by the child will make the distinction between nightmares and night terrors.

Sleep is divided into cycles, either REM (rapid eye movement) sleep or NREM (non rapid eye movement). Children behave differently during these two sleep cycles. Nightmares typically occur during the active phase of REM. The child will cry out in the night, is easily wakened and comforted by the parent. He or she may be able to recall the nightmare the next day. These sleep problems are common to about half of young preschool children, particularly girls.

Night terrors on the other hand occur during the deeper phase of NREM. The child may scream out and even sleep walk. The child may also perspire, have an increased heart rate, but is not responsive to the parent`s omforting or ability to wake the child. Typically the child does not remember the terror the next day. As compared to nightmares, night terrors are actually quite rare and occur in only about 3 out of every 100 children; they are more common in boys. Both nightmares or night terrors may be linked to an emotional stress, vivid imagination after viewing a scary or creative television show or movie video, or conflict in the family. If any of these triggers can be avoided it may help improve sleep habits.

However, it is much more difficult to manage in a 9 months old infant, because it is not generally possible to determine a cause. Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to this very complex problem. One strategy is to take turns as parents as to who gets up with the child each night. Another strategy is to try to get to the baby as soon as the disturbance begins, before the terror is at full scale. Use a baby room monitor to make sure that you can hear the baby. If you get to him early, you may be able to avert the terror by soothing the baby. Establish a pleasant night time routine to help the baby relax and feel safe and secure. Playing soft, low volume music in the room may also help.

If these measures do not help, please go back to see your pediatrician for assistance. It is important for all of you to get this resolved. Best of luck to you.

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Response by:

Judy Wright Lott, RNC, NNP, DSN
Associate Professor of Nursing
College of Nursing
University of Cincinnati

Marcia   Hern, RN, EdD Marcia Hern, RN, EdD
Formerly:
College of Nursing
University of Cincinnati