Night Terrors

(*This post differs from my standard life/family updates/musings.  I am writing this post because I want to share what has helped us through a pretty tough trial, with the hope that it may be helpful to other parents dealing with the same thing.*)

This is my sweet baby.  She’s happy, kind, sweet, and content.  She is about 17 months old and the joy of our lives.

Ever since our little one’s very difficult hospital stay at 2 months, she’s been a rough sleeper.  That got even worse with her second stay.  But, I co-slept and nursed, so that helped to keep sleep disruption minimal.  She could easily fall back asleep, though she woke up often in the night.

All of that changed a few months ago, when we decided to wean her and help her transition to a bed on her own.  Once we did that, our nights took a really rough turn.

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Though I didn’t know it at first, her weaning started in the middle of a bad ear infection.  Also, none of my children have been able to be weaned gradually.  They just wouldn’t take anything else if they had any possibility of a later nursing.  So, it had to be cold turkey.  All of this was pretty hard on her, and within a couple of weeks, our nights were horrible.

She would go to sleep, and then sleep for about 90 minutes.  She would then wake up screaming uncontrollably.  She acted as though she were terrified out of her mind, or in terrible pain.  I couldn’t tell which.  Nothing I did helped.  The tighter I held her, and the more I tried to say her name or anything comforting, the more she fought.  But if I put her down, she acted more scared than ever.  I couldn’t tell if she was awake or not.  Words cannot describe the heartache.  Sometimes she would settle down after a half hour to an hour.  Sometimes, she screamed for hours.  On the nights when she settled down, she would often start up again 20-60 minutes later.

Nights turned into weeks and months of doing this.  It was unbelievably difficult.  Naps also became nearly non-existent.  In the morning, she was exhausted, but her normal happy self again.  I couldn’t understand it.  And I was absolutely exhausted.  I was putting on weight and I was shaky and tired.

At first, I wondered if it was a milk allergy or intolerance.  I thought that would explain the seeming pain she was in at night.  So I eliminated all dairy from her diet for over a week.  No change.  (Except that the almond milk caused terrible, raw diaper rash so bad that she couldn’t even wet her diaper without screaming.)  Obviously, not the solution I was hoping for.

Eventually, we learned that she was suffering from night terrors (also called sleep terrors).  It all made complete sense.  Here are some basic bullet points about night terrors:

  • Night terrors are NOT nightmares.  They do not occur during REM sleep.  They are much more serious.
  • Night terrors occur during non-REM sleep, which has four stages.  Night terrors occur during the transition from stage 3 non-REM sleep to stage 4 non-REM sleep, beginning approximately 90 minutes after a child falls asleep.
  • Night terrors do not only occur in children who have had traumatic childhood experiences, although they often do.
  • Night terrors can be triggered by the following: stressful life events (check), high fever (check), separation anxiety (check, check, check…weaning was HORRIBLE on her, poor babe).
  • Night terrors are made worse by sleep deprivation (which is a cruel irony considering that most children with night terrors do not sleep or nap well, thus making the cycle more vicious).
  • It is nearly impossible to wake a child during a night terror.  Even if her eyes open, she is most likely asleep.
  • A child will not remember a night terror in the morning.
  • Night terrors are typically something that children grow out of in adolescence (this one may have made me cry the most…the thought of another decade of doing this every single night was very daunting).
  • There is no medical treatment for night terrors.

Okay, that all sounds pretty difficult.  Those bullet points are the information I acquired from medical documents.  Here are a few other things that I have observed in our own situation.  (***Not professional opinion or advice.***)

  • Most medical advice states that night terrors are short-lived, happen only once a night, and a few times a month.  Ha.  I don’t think so.  Not in our case.
  • Some doctors have said that a child cannot tell if you are there or not.  In our case, I feel like she is aware of my presence and is comforted somewhat by me at least being with her.  Though she doesn’t want to be held tightly, she is even more afraid when I put her down.  I have found that the best position is one where she can feel my touch, or be on my lap but free to thrash around.  It doesn’t stop it, but it is more comforting to her than when I withdraw a few feet.  Each child will be different, of course.
  • An erratic schedule makes it worse.  A predictable sleep schedule seems to lessen the severity.
  • If you are married: This is NOT either spouse’s fault.  Don’t give in to the temptation to be snappy with each other at night when things get rough.  Stick together.  The one last thing you may have in those wee hours is each other.  Don’t turn on each other.  Take turns or sit with each other…just figure out a way to make it work together.  Don’t abandon each other or become angry at the child or at one another.  This is tough on both of you.  This is the time to stick together as a family the hardest.

Once we identified what was happening, we had some hope.  I at least felt comforted to know what it was.  However, words cannot describe the exhaustion, and how difficult family life was for every single one of us with two jittery zombies for parents.  This had to get better.

If you’ve found this blog post and this is all sounding familiar, there is hope!  The following will describe what we’ve done to help our daughter:

In one article I had read, a doctor suggested disrupting the sleep cycle may help to stop the pattern at night.  So we tried it.  Since most of her night terrors started at about 90 minutes after she fell asleep, we began to wake her up an hour and 15 minutes after she had gone to sleep.  The doctor had been writing about older children and suggested waking them for 5 minutes.  However, I’ve found that for our little lady, waking her up enough to look at me at least twice seems to do the trick.  This little trick has helped a LOT and has lessened the frequency of her really severe night terrors.  She was still having rough nights, but at least they were not as severe and the frequency of the night terrors did lessen somewhat.  So that was a HUGE first step!

Next: more predictable sleep schedules.  I have had to be much more careful about making sure that we are home for naps, rather than naps in the car.  Being the youngest of six children, this is a little hard with her, but we have more success when we make that happen.

Those two things have helped a lot, but we were still having some pretty rough nights.  I have had tremendous success with using essential oils in the past for various issues, so we turned to essential oils again.  On the internet, my friend and I found a couple of instances where people stated that the Young Living blend Dream Catcher helped with night terrors.  However, in all honesty, I had a hard time biting the bullet, because the two reviews I found sounded a little too positive, and I wasn’t entirely sure that they were genuine, only because they were found on distributor’s pages.  I hoped they were true, but I was nervous.  The cost of this particular blend is pretty high ($88!), and the product description has nothing to do with night terrors.  So I was nervous.  We tried Peace and Calming first, and though it did help make her more relaxed and made her naps much better, it didn’t help with the night terrors as much as I’d hoped.  We finally decided to purchase Dream Catcher and try it.

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The first night, I put Peace and Calming on her ears like always (ears because on auricular emotion charts, the bottom of the ear corresponds to fear).  I layered Dream Catcher on top of it.  I wanted to test it on myself, as well, so I also put it on my ears. I think I was just used to using the ears, because when we had used Peace and Calming in the past, it had been with another daughter of mine, who was trying to overcome a very traumatic hospital stay (we’ve had a lot of those this past year).  Applying it to her ears had helped a great deal at that time.  So, with Dream Catcher on her ears and mine, we were really hopeful for a good night.  As we were going to sleep, my husband also asked to try it.  I had looked up Dream Catcher in my oils book by that time, and had seen that it was recommended that it be applied to the temples.  So on my husband, I applied it to his temples.

What followed was very interesting.  My husband had the best night of sleep he had had in a very long time, with a long, detailed dream…more remarkable because he NEVER dreams, or at least, never remembers his dreams.  However, my daughter and I had a terrible night.  It was heartbreaking.  She was fussy and upset all night long.  I had very little sleep because she was up all night, but when I did finally get about an hour and a half of sleep as the sun was coming up the next morning, I also had an intensely vivid dream.  However, my dream was disturbing and unpleasant.  I was so discouraged.  I felt like my last hope had failed.  But when I compared my experience with my husband’s, I began to wonder (again, I’m NOT an expert and don’t pretend to be) about the auricular emotion points.  I wondered if applying Dream Catcher to the bottom of the ear was carrying negative emotions into our dreams.  At this point, I was desperate and willing to consider anything.

On the next night, I applied Peace and Calming to her ears, and Dream Catcher to her temples and big toes (big toe corresponds to the brain on reflexology charts).  Hoping beyond hope, I applied it to my temples, as well, and after waking her at the normal time, we went to sleep.

It was an entirely different experience this time around, for both she and I.  She slept well, and no night terrors occurred!!!  I also slept very well, and in the morning, I felt truly rested for the first time in a very long time.

From my experience with Dream Catcher, my theory (again, NOT an expert) is that this blend lengthens and heightens REM sleep.  I always dream, but it is rare that I am able to recall details for more than an hour after I wake.  I also seem to have several short dreams each night.  But when I have used this blend, I dream long, very detailed dreams, and usually only one long dream.  I see extremely vivid details about my surroundings, rather than a vague awareness, and I remember them long after I wake up.  It is really a remarkable experience.  It hasn’t provided necessarily happy dreams, but in the few times I have tried it on my temples, the dreams are normal and not unpleasant.  The high level of detail and the feeling of incredibly restful sleep are the most remarkable things to me about the experience.  That’s me.

As for my daughter, I can tell she sleeps much deeper.  She sleeps peacefully, rather than the near-constant fitful state she used to be in if she was asleep.  She has not had a single night terror since we started using Dream Catcher on her temples and toes.  Life is indescribably better.

The one negative that we haven’t yet solved is that she still wakes after about 6-7 hours of sleep and is fussy.  Nothing like before, but still fussy.  It is very hard for her to go back to sleep.  Sometimes we are able to get her to sleep again after about 30-60 minutes.  Sometimes not.  She still needs to be able to sleep past that time, and we are working on figuring that out.  However, I am hopeful, and though this is frustrating, it’s nothing like the difficulty we were having before.

So, here is our routine for now:

  • Try to keep a somewhat predictable sleep schedule.  This is tough in our busy little family, but we’re trying.
  • Wake her after 60-75 minutes of sleeping at night.  Some nights, I can just tell she’s moving quicker through the cycles and needs to be woken a little earlier.  After a few weeks, I’ve gotten a feel for it.  I can’t describe it any better than that.  However, there have been two nights this week when I accidentally fell asleep before the time I meant to wake her.  She still didn’t have a night terror on those nights.  Time will tell, and I will update this post at a later point if we decide we no longer need to wake her.  For now, we are keeping with it.
  • Apply Peace and Calming to her lower ears and the back of her neck.  If there is any leftover in my hands, I rub it on the soles of her feet.  I use two drops, diluted with two drops of carrier oil.
  • Apply Dream Catcher to her temples, big toes, and if I have any left after rubbing it in really well, I put it on her forehead.  I use 2-3 drops, diluted with the same amount of carrier oil.
  • Sometimes I put a drop or two of lavender EO on her pillow, if she’s fussy when going to sleep.  It gives her a good start to the night.
  • Argentine has also been truly helpful.  Having a simple, comforting object that she can hold at night has really seemed to help her.  Not all children may be alike in this regard.

If you’ve read this far, and you’re going through this with your own child, I wish you luck with all of my heart.  I know how difficult it can be, especially the comments you may get.  People don’t understand that it’s different from dreams and that it didn’t happen because you showed your child a frightening movie.  They’ll suggest crying it out, not understanding that this isn’t just a baby testing her fences (I’m not a fan of that anyway…but that’s another post for another day :) ).  I hope that reading what has gotten us through has been somewhat helpful…best of luck!!  I will keep this post updated if anything changes.

***UPDATE 5/8/15****

It has been quite some time since I wrote the original post, but it continues to be the most read post on this blog.  My daughter is now 3, almost 3 1/2.  As mentioned in the comments, after we used nearly one bottle of Dream Catcher, our daughter was so much better that we didn’t need to use it any more.  She slept nearly as soundly as our other children.  With the continued passage of time, she came to sleep through the night (about the time she was potty trained and could last through the night).  The nights of blissful slumber lasted for a while (hooray!!).  Recently, she had a virus and had a high fever for several days.  It really threw her, especially at night.  As a result, her night terrors (in slightly different form…kicking and fussing for hours instead of all out screaming) returned.  It took me a few days to realize that it was night terrors returning, because she wasn’t screaming like before. I realized, though, that it started right about 90-120 minutes after falling asleep.  So, back to the old regimen we went.  Luckily, I had a little bit of Dream Catcher left in the bottle.  I started using that and waking her up after 75-90 minutes of sleep.  It worked starting on night one!  Not every night has been perfect since then, but her sleep is rapidly returning to normal.  I feel so blessed to have found this solution, and hope that reading this has helped you!

25 Responses

  1. Rachel B.

    Ahhh, poor little girl! And poor you and Matt! I totally know how lack of sleep can affect an entire family (and make you feel crazy).

    So guess what? I’m sure I’ve never mentioned this to you, but I have night terrors regularly. Probably 2-3 times a month on average. They started a couple weeks after Tom and I got married (major life change). They definitely do seem to get better overall when I have deeper and more regular sleep (good luck when you’re a mom, right?), but they do still happen. Tom always asks me the next morning if I “remember freaking out last night”. Like you said though I RARELY remember “freaking out” at all….so hopefully she’s not having any recollection of them. And I totally hear you on the frustration of trying to explain to people that it’s completely different than a bad dream. I’m well aware of what a bad dream is.

    To give you some hope, I know my nephew had night terrors (scared my sister have to death at the beginning because he would be screaming uncontrollably while looking right past her), but I want to say that he grew out of them after about a year. I know that sounds like forever, but definitely better than years and years.

    You’re such a good mom to be working so hard with her on this. I hope you guys can get some sleep and that those oils can help a bit. My mom is a huge essential oil fan and sends different things for me to try all the time.

    Love you Ann!

    May 29, 2013 at 1:31 pm

    • Jinger

      My son is 9 and we had one last night. He started these about 4 years ago. For me not being able to help your child or understand why he goes thru this. It’s really strange he does not remember one thing about the night before. Mine has the same pattern and does all this. I am thinking about ordering some of this stuff. It’s very tiring!

      August 17, 2016 at 7:19 am

      • Ann

        It is exhausting! Yes, this helped us a great deal, along with interrupting her sleep at night after about an hour. I order mine from a friend who is a YL distributor, but they’re ate many places online to order it, as well. Good luck!

        August 17, 2016 at 7:32 am

  2. Rachel B.

    I should clarify that my mom sends me different oils for other ailments. I’ve never tried them for night terrors as the terrors don’t seem to affect me as much as they probably do a little child.

    May 29, 2013 at 1:40 pm

    • Ann

      Oh my goodness, Rachel! As if I needed a reason to love you more! I am so glad you told me! I’m emailing you right now. That is so comforting to hear. Thank you!

      May 29, 2013 at 3:20 pm

  3. Sarah Burgoyne

    You are an amazing Mom Ann! I’m sorry you guys are having to go through this. I find it so sad when parents are unwilling or unaware of alernative ways of helping their kids.

    May 29, 2013 at 8:46 pm

  4. Jessie

    Both my kids have terrible night terrors too. Reagan’s have been better the last 6 months, and then started again recently. Thoughts and prayer for you! It’s so hard! I’m glad you are able to find some answers, and I hope it only gets better!

    May 29, 2013 at 11:34 pm

  5. Debbie Domenici

    Kenzie had night terrors for a little while when she was younger and it is very scary to go through and so frustrating when you don’t understand what is going on. You feel so helpless when you don’t understand what is going on with your little one and how you can help them. She eventually quit having them.

    I have heard a lot about essential oils lately and have had them recommended by some friends. There is actually an essential oils company building next to my work. I’ll have to look into them more.

    May 30, 2013 at 6:13 pm

  6. Oh my goodness Ann. I know we’ve talked about this but reading it makes me realize how absolutely scary this sounds. What a blessing you have found some relief and peace, especially your little emma.

    June 10, 2013 at 8:13 pm

  7. Britaine

    This is my life right now. My 2 year old just started having night terrors and will literally wake up an hour and a half after he falls asleep and then every 90 minutes after he falls back to sleep. He is saying “ow” and grabbing his legs like he is in pain but doesn’t seem to hear me when I am talking back to him. I am exhausted, my husband is frustrated and wants me to let him cry it out. He hasn’t had any major life changes. I will have to try waking him up an hour after he falls asleep. The oils sound like a good idea but $88 is a lot. Wish me luck! Thanks for the post, very helpful!

    June 11, 2014 at 1:48 am

    • Ann

      Britaine, good luck! I truly feel your pain. It is exhausting. The waking up after an hour has truly been the most helpful thing of all. The oil is very expensive. It did help, but interestingly (and I need to update my post about this), she seemed not to need it after we went through a bottle. As she neared the very end of the first bottle we bought (months and months later) she seemed not to need it any more. The waking up still helped tremendously. Good luck. :)

      June 12, 2014 at 7:42 pm

  8. Jessica

    Thank you so much for this post! It was beautifully written and was very helpful in trying to pinpoint why my son has started to have night terrors a few times today.

    November 30, 2014 at 11:30 pm

  9. Shonta

    Thank you so much for this blog post. My daughter age 9 has suffered from night terrors for 5 years. Recently they have gotten worse. The only thing with her case is she is aware you are there but still can’t wake up. She tells me what happening and asks me to help her. We try to help her realize it’s not real and get to a happier place. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn’t. But you can tell she is still asleep and not fully aware of what’s going on. For her the source of her night terrors was a very tramatic event in her life and this event impacts her daily life too. As for tonight I am going to try to disturb her sleep pattern and looking into the oils. She will also begin seeing a physiologist soon to help her with her struggles. I just want to say your post has given me so much insight into this issue and I truly don’t feel alone anymore.

    December 12, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    • Ann

      Shonta, prayers for your sweet daughter! This is truly such a terrible trial for the whole family. I hope so much that she can get the help she needs. The interrupting sleep patterns has helped us the most. By the time we finished one bottle of the Dream Catcher oil, we found she didn’t need it any more…a few months. She still has them occasionally, but nothing like before. Best of luck to you!

      December 13, 2014 at 4:47 pm

  10. kayla

    Thank you so much for this post! It sounds like exactly what is happening with my family! My 3 year old gets us up all night in a panic with night terrors and being 25 weeks pregnant it’s very tiring. I do want to try the oils along with waking him up after an hour or so but do you do this every 60-75 minutes? Thanks for this post it gives me hope of getting a peaceful sleep again!

    December 30, 2014 at 11:07 pm

    • Ann

      Hi Kayla! How exhausting! I put the oils on her right before bed, and then I woke her up the first 60-75 minutes only. It seemed with my daughter, it always started with that initial sleep cycle and then went all night. Often, when I woke her up in the first hour or so, the rest of the night was better than before. Good luck, hope so much that it helps!

      December 31, 2014 at 1:33 pm

  11. Dani

    Ann! Thank you so much for this post! I found it when searching for help for night terrors with essential oils. My 7-month-old screams in his sleep every 90 minutes overnight. The only thing that will calm him down is nursing, but doing that every 90 minutes is draining me to negative levels. It also means he is totally saturating his diapers overnight, which just contributes to the overall torture of nights for us.
    We are YL users and have Peace & Calming. I’ve tried it on his feet, but that hasn’t made a difference. I’m going to try it behind his ears and I’ve ordered Dream Catcher. Really hoping that these will help us. Do you have any experience with White Angelica or Sacred Mountain? We’ve already got these and I’m thinking that maybe they could help before the Dream Catcher arrives.
    I’m still trying to figure out what could be causing this. I am worried that this could be a longterm neurological side effect of antibiotics he was given shortly after birth in the NICU for “preventative” reasons.
    I just want to help my son overcome this.

    February 15, 2015 at 2:49 am

    • Ann

      Dani, it’s heartbreaking! So sorry you have been going through this. :( I have known many people who seem to be able to pinpoint the reason why it started for their child, and many others who seem to have it for no identifiable reason. It’s such an awful, awful experience for the whole family. Though I don’t have any experience using either of those oils with my daughter’s night terrors, I don’t think there is any reason not to try! Best of luck to you and your little guy!

      February 18, 2015 at 8:41 pm

  12. Oh my! I am so glad I came across your post. I was searching for info on essential oils to help with night terrors. My 19 month old has woken up screaming the past 2 nights. We even went to the dr today because I was sure that she had horrible ear infections and was in excruciating pain. Doc said her ears were just fine and suggested that she might be suffering from night terrors but gave no suggestions on what to do to help. Savannah usually wakes about 2 hours after going to sleep ( after reading your post, I’m sure that’s it’s 90 minutes…I will pay closer attention to the time) does your daughter go back to sleep easily after you wake her? Savannah is inconsolable and her screaming lasted 2 hours last night. She calls for me but thrashes and kicks and fights me. She calls for her cup but when I give it to her, she throws it. She calls for her bed but when I put her in it she bangs her head on the side. She calls for her Daddy but when he takes her she screams for me. It never crossed my mind that maybe she wasn’t really awake. We are YL users and I’ve tried Peace & Calming with no apparent effect. Tonight I tried a drop of Joy on her big toes, so we’ll see how that works. I will have to see about Dream Catcher. I find it interesting that you only needed the 1 bottle. My theory (like you, I’m not an expert) is that the oils help correct whatever cellular issue is causing the problem. We’ve had no traumatic experiences or major life changes that I can think of so I don’t know what the cause of her terrors is. I’m so glad to know that we aren’t just crazy and this a
    Is a *real* issue.

    May 6, 2015 at 8:47 pm

    • Ann

      Allison, it is SO hard! I completely sympathize! If it goes on much longer, Dream Catcher has been a lifesaver for us. As long as I woke my daughter up before the “night terror” portion of her sleep set in, she went right back to sleep with no problems, almost always. I woke her up enough to look at me once or twice, but not enough to start doing jumping jacks. :) I turned on a light in the hallway while I woke her, but then put it right back out. I wanted to rouse her from the sleep cycle, but not totally wake her up. GOOD LUCK!!

      May 8, 2015 at 3:06 pm

  13. Abbie

    OMG I am so grateful for this post! You have no idea! OK well yes you prob do since you’ve gone thru a lot. I nursed my son til about 20 months. We weaned in Feb 2015 bc I needed to be taking meds for me that would dry up my milk. So, we made that transition and it was HARD and we did a lot of aweful nights where I thought that we’d never sleep again with him crying and wanting his booboos. But this passed. Finally. Now the only time he night wakes is when he’s wet himself to the point that he’s soaked his clothes or he’s sick like sinus or cold. We know how to fix those things tho. We run a cool mist in his room, make sure he’s cool, don’t overdress, use a destress spray, bath, sing read books and pray before bed and keep the lullaby cd on loop… well… those things were working along with elevated head of his bed with a wedge. WOW that’s a lot we were doing but it was our thing. Well… Wednesday night he began this horrible waking that wasn’t like before but only 1 time. Thursday again. Friday night worse. Saturday night we were up about every 90 minutes. Sunday night (last night) the same thing. Today… I’m looking for more help and good momma knowledge. I saw Dream Catcher on Pinterest but I was skeptical because of the cost… I’m looking for it now in town or will be ordering online b/c I want to do everything I can do to help my little man. He’s almost 2 (7/8/15) and we don’t want to go backwards after coming so far.

    Thank you so much for the advice!

    June 22, 2015 at 2:00 pm

  14. Christina

    I have a friend that uses vetiver for her daughter. She actually has slept 10hrs and is calm upon waking. You might try adding that to your regimen if she wakes fussy.

    July 10, 2015 at 3:06 pm

  15. Kate

    Like so many others, this is MY LIFE TOO right now. Your post really hit what I needed to see tonight. Thank you. Our 8 year old daughter had bad night terrors from around age 3 until 6 1/2, then they stopped completely. 18 months without any, and they have resurfaced big time in the last few months – both times starting with a bout of strep throat. They are much more physical now – she runs around and hops up and down and screams “I got scared….I got scared.” Now (unlike when she was younger) she does remember or realize a little bit of what is going on. And your note about how to deal with this with your spouse was just what I needed tonight. It’s so hard not to be able to find something to help. We’re revisiting the ENT and a sleep study to see if the tonsils are the culprit, but this advice is all so good and we’ll give the oils a try. Thank you, and good luck to all the families dealing with this.

    July 19, 2016 at 9:42 pm

  16. Jamie

    Thank you very much! I tried it on my daughter and myself and I think we may have finally found something that works! I will share this with everyone I know. Night terrors are so scary. The first time my four yr old had one, I had the mets come from our local volunteer fire dept because she kept grabbing her chest saying it hurt. I would NEVER want another parent to go through what I did. Thank you again

    September 13, 2016 at 6:45 am

    • Ann

      I’m so glad!

      September 13, 2016 at 7:13 am

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