Thursday, September 22, 2016

Night Terrors: Part 1

*Fair warning: this is long. I tried to keep it informative, but it's also an extremely personal issue that has weighed heavily on us for some time, so it turned into a bit of a vent as well.

There are just few things that rip a parent's heart out like being unable to help your child. If you've ever had to deal with night terrors, you know that feeling well. Night terrors are different than nightmares. They're not actually a dream that the child wakes up from in a frightened state. Instead, the child sits up as if they're awake and screams, cries, thrashes, etc. It's a terrifying experience for a parent. Unfortunately we know from experience.

For us, about six months ago we noticed Big Sister waking up in the night just a little while after we put her to bed. She always cried and acted completely terrified, but wouldn't answer us when we asked what was wrong, or anything else for that matter. It was really like she wasn't even awake. She just stared and screamed. After maybe 5-10 minutes of holding her and talking to her she would eventually calm down. At that point when we would ask her why she was awake and crying, she was just as confused as we were. She had no idea why she was out of her bed, and no memory of waking up or screaming for all that time.

At first it just happened a few times now and then, but before long she was having weeks in a row where she would be up every single night. Because she acted so scared when it happened, I assumed she was having bad dreams from something she had seen, perhaps on tv. Naturally, we banned the scariest thing she was watching right away- My Little Ponies {it has some surprisingly dark episodes!}. That seemed to make a difference for a little while, but sadly it wasn't a solution. It started happening again. That's when I realized we weren't dealing with bad dreams, but night terrors.

As I'm prone to do when I need solutions to anything, I went to Pinterest and read everything I could find on the topic. The more I learned about night terrors the more I was certain that was our real issue. Characteristics of night terrors are...
  • waking at roughly the same time each night
  • inconsolable screaming, crying
  • thrashing or flailing
  • a blank stare, not truly awake
  • no memory of a nightmare or bad dream
  • occurs in the first half of the night while nightmares tend to happen in the second half or early morning
  • most common in younger children, usually outgrown by adolescence

Once I knew what we were dealing with, I just wanted to figure out what I could do about it. Is there something we can change that's causing this? Can we prevent it from happening? Can we stop it once it starts? I found out that some things that can cause night terrors include...
  • a change in bedtime routine
  • a full bladder
  • a traumatic experience
  • being over-tired
  • a fever or being too hot
  • stress or anxiety
  • feelings of insecurity
  • major life changes

None of those seemed to ring true for us. The only thing I could come up with from that list was perhaps some stress from beginning school again. I try really hard to make it fun and not a stressful experience {one of my main reasons for homeschooling, actually}, but she is somewhat of a perfectionist in that she wants to do everything exactly right on the first try which can cause her some anxiety. She is also super amped about school this year, so it's possible that it's not even a negative stress. Unfortunately there's not really any way of knowing for sure if that's a factor or not.

Also to my serious disappointment, there is almost nothing you can do to stop or prevent night terrors. Generally the advice is to sit with your child, speak to them gently, and comfort them by holding or hugging them, but only as much as they'll allow as this makes some children thrash even more. For us, when we hear that she's crying, we get her out of bed and out of her room right away since she shares with Little Sister. We take her to our room and have her use the potty, even though we always have her go right before bed. This seems to shorten the amount of time it takes for her to calm down. After that we usually just sit with her and hold her on our bed, telling her softly that mommy and daddy are right here with her and everything's okay. Thankfully she mostly just cries, yells and rocks. She doesn't physically resist being held or comforted as many kids do. I have to say it's just a heartbreaking experience as a parent though. Just this week she has woken up sobbing her baby sister's name, and yelled things like, "I'm afraid something bad is going to happen!" "Is it really real??" and "I want to go home!" It is so hard to feel like she's experiencing something traumatic but not being able to get through to her and reassure her that everything's okay. After a while, there is a distinct change in her facial expression and demeanor. She quiets down somewhat abruptly, and we're able to communicate with her again. Just tonight when she settled down I asked her, "are you ok?" and her confused answer was, "yes... why not?" There's a small amount of comfort in knowing that she doesn't recall any kind of trauma or nightmare in all this, but it certainly takes it's toll on all of us.

Currently, beginning this week, she has been waking up twice each night. The first time it's about 45 minutes after we initially put her to bed. The second time happens about 20-30 minutes after we get her back in bed from the first episode. Each time it takes about 15-20 minutes from the time we get her out of bed until the time we tuck her back in. This means we spend from bed time until her first episode waiting for it to happen {this is a time of high anxiety for me}, then spend about 20 minutes getting through that. Half an hour later we repeat the same process, and then she's finally in bed for the night to begin her consecutive hours of sleep around 10:30. By that time I am amped from anxiety and my heart is leaping out of my chest with every teeny tiny sound I hear. It's extremely difficult for me to go to bed and fall asleep when my brain just knows someone is about to wake up screaming at any second... aaand that's why I'm awake at 2 am writing a blog post.

Like most moms, I refuse to rest {and can't, really} until I've exhausted every known option to help my baby. Through my combing of Pinterest, I have come across several families' stories about what worked for them. One more common tactic is "scheduled awakenings," which is basically what it sounds like. You identify the amount of time between putting your child to bed and when the night terror occurs. It's usually about the same amount of time each night. For us it seems to be around 45 minutes after bed time. Once you've identified that window, you wake the child yourself approximately 15 minutes before the night terror would usually happen. The idea is that you're disrupting the sleep pattern and hopefully resetting it so the night terror doesn't happen. We have tried doing that twice so far and both times she has still had a night terror, which is really discouraging. Perhaps if we continue doing it eventually it'll work. Tonight, it just seemed to prolong the inevitable. We woke her at 9:00, had her back in bed at 9:15, and she had her night terror at 10:15 {just when I was convinced it might have worked!}.

The other recommendation I've come across is the use of essential oils. If you know me, I love a good natural remedy. But more than that, I'll do anything for my kids, even if it sounds like hocus-pocus. I've been interested in EOs for a little while now, and actually about a week ago just ordered my first set. They haven't arrived yet, but I've been doing my homework and plan to try a few different options to see if they might help us out. The uses and benefits of EOs really are amazing, and there are a whole bunch that are used for calming anxiety, helping with relaxation and sleep. But wait!... Before you write me off as totally nuts, I'm also putting in a call to our pediatrician in the morning for her advice as well ;) I have to say, though, I'm feeling pretty hopeful that the EOs will make at least some difference. We can diffuse calming varieties in the hour or so leading up to bed time, add them to the bath water for an extra-calming bath experience, as well as apply them directly to her skin at bed time. I've already gotten a diffuser especially for her bedroom so I can diffuse calming/relaxing oils for her through the night.

Beyond scheduled awakenings and EOs, I'll continue hunting down any remedy known to man mom. I'm already planning to overhaul our bedtime routine to increase calming time before bed. I'll also be looking for points of stress or anxiety in our day that can be eliminated, and working to make our homeschool work as enjoyable and low-stress as possible. I honestly don't even know if stress is the true cause of her night terrors, but I can say that none of the other causes I've read about seem to apply, so that's what I have to go with. As with anything, I have to wonder if this could be diet-related. Is she eating something that is affecting her chemistry and throwing off her stress hormones or sleep patterns? As far as I'm concerned, it's always possible, so a diet adjustment may be in the works. I'll probably save that as a last resort as it's especially difficult to keep a child to special dietary restrictions. And of course, I'll continue praying - for her, for us, for sleep, for answers. That is the most effective solution to anything and everything, after all.

I've titled this post Night Terrors: Part 1 because this story isn't over. I'll continue to share our experience and what helps or doesn't. Let's all just pray, if you would, that it only ends up being a 2-part series.

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