My daughter has been experiencing night terrors since she was very young. They occur sporadically. She can go weeks without having any, and then have several in one week. They usually occur when she is sleep deprived, most commonly when she is or has been ill. Recently, we have noticed an increase in intensity and duration. And they tear me to pieces.
If you are not familiar with night terrors, here is an official description from the website BabyCenter:
Night terrors occur in at least 5 percent of young children, and can start as early as 9 months. These mysterious disturbances happen during deep, non-dreaming sleep. A child in this state will cry, whimper, flail, and even bolt out of bed. Though his eyes may be wide open, he's not awake and isn't aware of your presence. Once the night terror (which can last anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour or more) is over, your child will return to a sound sleep and have no memory of the incident in the morning.
Now, let me tell you what it is like for us. It often begins with soft whimpers. And at this point, it is impossible to tell if she is simply waking or about to have an episode. Then she will start to scream. Not cry, scream. When we go to check on her, she appears to be awake. But it soon becomes obvious she is not.
Her eyes are open, but glassy and glazed over. She does not respond to us, and does not appear to be aware that we are even in the room. Sometimes we find her sitting up in her crib. Other times she is face down, screaming in to the mattress.
When having a night terror episode, our daughter will appear frantic, terrified. Her body will be rigid. She often arches her back and flails her arms around. If we attempt to comfort her, things rapidly go from bad to worse. Her screaming grows louder and more violent. She becomes extremely agitated, often hitting us.
Everything I have read says that you should not attempt to comfort your child during a night terror. Doing so will only make things worse. Obviously, and much to my dismay, I have found this to be true. But the mother in me cannot stand by and do nothing while my child is so upset. So, I have my own way of dealing with it.
I pick my daughter up out of her crib and sit with her in the glider in her room. I do not speak to her. I do not try to wake her. I barely touch her. I simply sit with her in my lap until it is over. I don't want her to be alone. It can last anywhere from five to thirty minutes. The longer it goes on, the more violent and intense it is.
I find I am able to remain quite calm during these episodes. I'm not sure how. I just do. I think I know inside that my getting upset is not going to help matters. And somehow I feel that my calm presence is helpful. If my daughter does wake, which sometimes happens, I don't want her to sense panic or fear in me. If she does realize I am there, I want her to be reassured by my presence.
As soon as an episode is over, I place my daughter back in her crib and leave her room. Then the emotions come. I usually shake all over uncontrollably. It is a very intense and disturbing experience. The only comfort I can take is that she has no idea it is even happening, and will never remember it. And I have talked to several moms who have dealt with night terrors, and their children always grew out of it.