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Personal Essay: The Reality of Night Terrors in Toddlers

You'll get through it.

It was just a little past midnight. My husband and I were bingeing season 2 of The Barber Shop on HBO (highly recommend).

I remember being on the last episode when my eyes kept shutting, so I told him to finish it without me and rolled over to pass out. What felt like hours later but was only a few seconds, I woke to hear the all too familiar shrieks coming from downstairs. It's not the scream of a child who has woken from a bad dream or isn't feeling good and wants someone to cuddle them. It's the scream of someone who is having a night terror, or at least that is what I have come to believe is happening with my youngest child, Marnie.

It's suspected that night terrors only occur in about 3-6% of all children. I have done a lot of research on the term in the past few months, since I began to suspect that this was what was happening to Marnie. Many people confuse night terrors with a nightmare, but they are actually unrelated. According to Wed MD, "Night terrors are episodes of intense screaming, crying, thrashing, or fear during sleep that happen again and again, usually in children ages 3 to 12. New cases peak at age 3 1/2. There are two main types of sleep: rapid eye movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM). Night terrors happen during non-REM sleep, usually about 90 minutes after a child falls asleep. About 1 to 6 in 100 children have night terrors, also known as sleep terrors. They happen to both boys and girls, and to children of all races."

To anyone that knows my youngest daughter, Marnie, it's no surprise that she would wake up multiple times a night. She is, as we have joked, "the difficult one" (which is admittedly so unfair, as it's not really her fault). But when you go from having the near-perfect first child to one of the exact opposite nature, I don't care how great of a parent you are, it's extremely f***ing hard!

From day one, Marnie never was a good sleeper. Sometimes I blame myself for this. I remember the first night home from the hospital trying to get her to sleep in her bassinet, and I gave up after the first try. I'm not sure why I did; I was so good at sleep training with my firstborn, Hadley, but for some reason that night I remember taking her downstairs and laying with her on the couch. That is where I slept with her for the entire first year of her life (and then countless more times to this day).

It's hard to pinpoint when exactly Marnie's night terrors started. I didn't even have a name for them until a good friend of mine was over one night and witnessed it for herself. She explained to me that it seemed like a night terror because she had briefly gone through the same ordeal with one of her daughters. After hearing her story, it all clicked: the signs and symptoms and the difference between Marnie's normal wake ups and the types like last night.


My husband, Matt, got downstairs before me when the screams began. I got down there only moments later, but I knew from the first scream that it was a night terror. On normal nights when Marnie wakes, she usually doesn't scream like this. If anything, she just shouts "Mama" or the occasional cry. Night terror screams are much different. They literally sound like the screams you hear in movies when someone is being murdered. Matt was rocking her in his arms in the living room. He had come downstairs to find her huddled in the corner of our bathroom that's right outside of her bedroom. I first went to check on our older daughter, Hadley. It was the weekend and Hadley wanted to sleep in Marnie's bed with her. Hadley was still sound asleep, thank god. I don't know how it's possible, but that girl seems to ALWAYS sleep through Marnie's nighttime episodes. I assume it's partially due to Hadley's ability to sleep through just about anything (she's always been that way) and partially just being used to her sister constantly screaming through the nights.

I got back into the living room and Matt is in the same position, standing there trying to rock and console her while she thrashes uncontrollably. I grab for her immediately–as I always do. The motherly instinct in me always thinks, Maybe if she feels me holding her, it will stop. But I know that during her night terrors it doesn't make a difference who is holding her. I take her to the couch and lay her down next to me while ripping my shirt off. hoping she will feel my skin and begin to calm down. Marnie still has a big sensory thing for skin-to-skin contact. She's always asking at nighttime to "rub my cold arm." It's one of the best ways to get her back to sleep. There's still no change, and she doesn't reach for my arm to rub–just lots of flailing around, punches, and kicks (at one point I took a big dropkick to the right eye). We try to talk to her, and this really riles her up. She shouts at us to "go" in the most terrifying voice you can imagine while pointing to the other room. All I can think of is scenes from The Exorcist. She keeps repeating herself, her voice crackling in and out as she becomes hoarse. She's flailing worse than ever around the couch. Not knowing what to do, I get up and do as she asks, leaving the room with my husband right behind me. We walk into the kitchen and stand in the dark, against the counter, listening. She calms down a bit as we leave, and I figure this is a good thing. Maybe us being there and trying to talk and console her through this really is only making it worse.

We stand there in silence for what seems like forever. It probably was really about five to ten minutes. She goes through stages now. For a moment she seems to be calming down, only for it to pick up and get worse again. I don't know what to do; I am literally frozen in fear–fear that if I go back in there, my child, my baby, will lose control again and shriek for me to leave her. All this time I keep thinking about our lovable Goldendoodle, Atlas, who has been laying in close proximity to her this entire time, even through the kicks and punches! With tears in my eyes, I can't help but try to take my mind somewhere else to stop from having a complete breakdown during the silence of standing there next to my speechless husband. I look up for something to distract me. The first thing to catch my eye is our home security system with its lit-up green keypads. I start counting the buttons, seventeen total. Start at the top and keep counting, thirty-four. Again, sixty-eight.

In the other room, Marnie seems to be calming down. Matt is the first one to go in there, I follow right behind him. She doesn't freak out this time when we lay down on the couch next to her. She starts rubbing my arm and, for the first time, finally opens her eyes, looks up at me, and smiles a little. It's as if everything that just went on didn't even happen to her! She falls back asleep within minutes… It's finally over.

I'm pretty sure I had heard the phrase "night terror" here or there somewhere in my life, but I never truly understood what they were. I wouldn't have known what was going on had it not been for my friend. Hopefully sharing my experience may help some other scared parents out there have a better understanding of what may be going on with their child. Because although they are typically not a cause for serious alarm, night terrors are still scary as sh**!

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