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Demonic night terrors may traumatize mom, but not the child

About 10 to 15 percent of all children will experience night terrors. They should not be confused with nightmares, which a child remembers.
/ Source: TODAY

I babysit twice a week for my 23-month-old granddaughter Joni, a dream child with a sweet disposition who sleeps like, well — a baby.

That is until last week, when she had her first night terror, and oddly, not at night at all, but during nap time.

I wasn’t there to witness it, but my daughter described a scene right out of the “Exorcist:” Joni let out a blood-curdling scream, thrashed in her crib, back arching and wild eyes darting, and refused to be held by her mother.

“She was like a feral child for 40 minutes,” reported my daughter, calm, but clearly rattled. “It was like she was demonic or possessed.”

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Waiting for the pediatrician to call back, we both scoured the Internet, learning these nocturnal outbursts are somewhat common, even in someone as young as Joni.

Joni, 23 months, and her Nana, Susan Donaldson James.
Joni, 23 months old, and her Nana, Susan Donaldson James.Susan Donaldson James

Tara Wang, 44, of Washington, D.C., told TODAY her daughter, now 7, has struggled with night terrors since the age of 9 months.

“She wouldn’t take a bottle, fought my hugs, and kept throwing herself to the floor,” Wang wrote in her blog Two Wishes. “Nothing I tried would soothe her. The screaming and fighting went on for 30 agonizing minutes, 40, 45, until she finally settled back into an exhausted sleep and Mama dissolved into tears.”

Dr. Mark T. Brown, author of “Smarter Sleep: Real Answers, Science Based Solutions, Healthier Sleep,” said sleep terrors are benign.

“It is important to know that there is no long-term trauma caused to the child by night terrors, more to the mortified parent,” he told TODAY.

About 10 to 15 percent of all children will experience night or sleep terrors, according to Dr. Ari Brown, founder of 411 Pediatrics in Austin, Texas. They are most common in the toddler age group and are usually gone by kindergarten.

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They should not be confused with nightmares, when a child wakes up with a scary dream and can be soothed. Night terrors are more like neurological storms that last from five to 30 minutes.

Typically night terrors occur in the first part of the sleep cycle, when a child is aroused out of deep non-REM sleep. Fever, sleep apnea and even a full bladder can trigger the arousal.

“They eventually just calm down and fall back asleep and have no recall the next morning,” Brown told TODAY.

According to the Mayo Clinic, during a sleep terror episode, a person might:

  • Sit up in bed
  • Scream or shout
  • Kick and thrash
  • Sweat, breathe heavily or have a racing pulse
  • Be hard to wake up and be confused when awakened
  • Be inconsolable
  • Stare wide-eyed
  • Get out of bed and run around the house
  • Act aggressive (more common in adults)

In Joni’s case, she finally just settled. After writhing around tugging at her clothes, she cheerfully looked at her mother and said, “Sock missing!”

A phone call to Joni’s pediatrician reassured us, but the doctor still wanted to see her to rule out other conditions — like seizures, which tend to be briefer, more frequent and characterized by stereotypic movement.

By the time we had an office visit, she’d had three more. The pediatrician noted they fall under the broader category of arousal parasomnias, which tend to be familial.

Joni sleeps soundly here, but she has had a bout with night or sleep terrors that are described as "right out of the 'Exorcist'."
Joni sleeps soundly here, but she has had a bout with night or sleep terrors that are described as "right out of the 'Exorcist'."Susan Donaldson James

Of course, I remembered my brother Jim, well into adolescence, would jump from his bed seemingly wide awake. He broke his nose and destroyed a guitar, all while sleepwalking.

Joni’s father is a mad sleep talker: “Once, he sat up and asked for Osama Bin Laden’s business card,” piped in my daughter as the amused doctor dictated the anecdote into his notes.

The best way to handle a night terror, he advised, is to respond calmly. Stay close, to make sure the child is safe, but do not try to wake the child. He suggested we switch up Joni’s nap time to break the cycle.

Joni was in my charge the next day and I was terrified it would be my turn to witness the “Exorcist.” As before, she went down for her nap like a champ: “Night, night, Nana,” she cooed sweetly.

Two hours later, I heard a piercing scream on the baby monitor and feared the worst. But as I peered into the crib, she outstretched her arms begging to be soothed. I knew it wasn’t a night terror — all she wanted was “Mummy.”