Dr. Greene's Answer
When most people (including the popular press and popular parenting literature) speak of sleep terrors, they are generally referring to what are called confusional arousals by most pediatric sleep experts (Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine in the Child, by Ferber and Kryger). Confusional arousals are quite common, taking place in as many as 15% of toddler and pre-school children. They typically occur in the first third of the night on nights when the child is over-tired, or when the sleep-wake schedule has been irregular for several days.
Try to avoid letting your child get over-tired, and try to keep the wake/sleep schedule as regular as possible. When an event does occur, do not try to wake him — not because it is dangerous, but because it will tend to prolong the event. It is generally best not to hold or restrain the child, since his subjective experience is one of being held or restrained; he would likely arch his back and struggle all the more. Instead, try to relax and to verbally comfort the child if possible. Speak slowly, soothingly, and repetitively. Turning on the lights may also be calming. Protect your child from injury by moving furniture and standing between him and the windows. In most cases the event will be over in a matter of minutes. True night terrors, or bothersome confusional arousals, can also be treated with medications, hypnotherapy, or with other types of relaxation training.
Recently, my youngest son was having a confusional arousal, and his mother observed that these events are most common at the same ages that children are becoming aware of the bladder feeling full during sleep. Perhaps some of these kids just need to go to the bathroom? We stood him in front of the toilet, and he urinated – still not awake. The episode faded abruptly, and he returned to sleep. The calm was dramatic.
Was this a coincidence? Or might this be a revolutionary new help for parents whose kids have these frightening episodes? A number of readers have tried this approach. Most said it worked wonders; a few said it had no effect. If you try it, let me know the results, either way. Together we can learn more about the wonder and mystery of sleep in children.