Parasomias and how to stop Night Terrors


There are so many different reasons for night wakings, but today we’re going to explore one particular thing that could be causing night wakings for your little one, and that is parasomnias. What on earth are they? In this week’s blog post I am going to explain exactly what they are, why they happen, how you can respond to them and how you can prevent them.

Let’s delve into parasomnias. It’s a funny old word, isn’t it? Actually, it comes from para, meaning alongside of, and the Latin noun of somnus, which means sleep. It’s something that happens alongside sleep, basically.

What is it? What are they? What are parasomnias?

You will have heard of them in their individual little forms, things like sleep talking, sleep walking. You may have heard of night terrors or sleep terrors, those are all part of the parasomnia family. What they really are, what it really is, what it really means is a movement or behavior in sleep. That’s the easiest way to explain it. Things like sleep walking actually are pretty hereditary. It runs in families. If you were a sleep walker, maybe your child will be. Don’t be surprised if you see that, it does run along in families.

That hopefully gives you an idea as to what parasomnias are and the group they belong to. Sleep walking, is walking in sleep. It’s getting up out of bed and physically walking around, and talking is talking or making noises in your sleep. But the one that I think needs a little more explanation is sleep terrors or night terrors, because a lot of parents think their child is having them. Maybe they are, maybe they’re not, so it’s good to understand what they actually even are. They are not bad dreams or nightmares or severe bad dreams or terror, that kind of thing. That’s a dream and it’s something that you wake up from and you can recall it. You can remember it if you try hard enough. The brain can recall it.

Whereas, a sleep terror or night terror, whilst it can come across as being similar in the moment, maybe you can see them thrashing around or speaking and appearing upset. It looks like someone’s in a really bad dream. However it’s actually not the same thing. It’s not the same place. They’re actually in a state of somewhere between awake and asleep.

They’re in a very deep sleep, but there’s an awake and an awareness element to it as well. I’m not going to go into the science right now. But what you’ll see in terms of the difference is a bad dream or a nightmare is, “Oh my gosh. It’s awful. It’s awful. I’m awake.” As opposed to a little one who looks like they are awake. They already look awake. With a night terror or a sleep terror, or actually the milder version that we tend to see in the younger ones is typically called a confusion arousal. It can still be a little bit upsetting or distressing in terms of their behavior, but it’s not quite as terrifying in terms of how they behave, but it is still very odd.

They can be as mild as sitting up and looking around and looking for something and being confused and then going back to sleep, hopefully. The thing with those, confusional arousals, sleep terrors, night terrors, that kind of thing, is they will look or can look as though they are awake. Parents often describe it as they look like they’re possessed. Soetimes in this state if you approach them, they might look like they’re looking right through you and you’re feeling like, “They don’t recognize me,” or that they aren’t responding to you. When you try to comfort them or anything like that you don’t get a response and that’s how these episodes can be.

How do you respond to them? That’s the thing. The key thing is not to try to jolt or shake or wake a person from a parasomnia. It would be really confusing for them. It could be upsetting, or you could actually just become a part of all of the confusion that they’re in. You just become a figure that’s in that weird world they’re in right now with their mind, if you think of it like that. It’s better not to try and wake them, but instead to monitor them. With children especially, with little ones, monitor that they’re not going to hurt themselves. They’re not getting into physical difficulty because if they are thrashing about or walking or moving around, they could injure themselves. So safety, primarily, is the thing you’re looking out for. If they’re of an age that they can get up and out of bed and they’re walking, guide them back nicely. Don’t try to interact. Just, “This way,” and guide them back. They’ll subconsciously have this, ‘you’re there, but you’re not really there’ level of awareness.

If it’s talking, honestly, I would let it go and let them talk. Let them chat away in their sleep. It’s really not a problem. If it’s a night terror, if they’re shouting out, “No, no, no,” frustrated or anything that is disturbing, again, monitor. Watch them. If you can watch either from a baby monitor video camera or from a crack in the door, just to make sure they’re okay, but hold back. If they are okay, just hold back. Don’t intervene. Let the episode pass. Like I said, you can’t exactly comfort them. It doesn’t really work.

I’ve tried this myself, by the way. My son was prone to having some of these when he was in the toddler/ preschooler age, so I know firsthand what it feels like as a parent to experience a child having one of these. It is really bizarre and it can be quite upsetting. Sometimes it can be funny, but sometimes they can be upsetting. Hold back and try not to stimulate or engage with the child. But if you can steer them and keep them safe, that’s great.

Again, with sleep walking, my youngest, actually, has done a bit of that. I know if she’s come downstairs of an evening, which is really, really rare for either of my children to ever do that, but if she does, I almost immediately know. I’ve even looked at her, looked at my husband and gone, “She’s not awake.” and then I’ll say to her, “Come on, back to bed,” just gently though, not to wake her up or startle her and I walk with her and tuck her in. In the morning when I ask her about it, she has no memory of it and it’s because it was a parasomnia. That’s kind of a nicer kind where it’s not really upsetting and she’s even laughed about that in the morning.

So that’s parasomnias, how to respond or not to respond to them, how to deal with them in the moment, and rest assured they will usually pass quite quickly, and it’s good to know that they typically happen in the first half of the night. Less often in the second half of the night, so usually you can deal with it before you’re having your lovely deep sleep. But what can you do to actually prevent it? How can you stop them? How can you stop them? Well, like I said, sometimes it can be hereditary anyway, and so it is part of their genetic makeup and a tendency that they may have. However, that tendency is far more likely to show itself if they’re overtired. I say this about everything and if you’ve read any of my other blogs or watched my YouTube videos or followed me for a while, you’ll understand that I’m always talking about overtiredness because it is absolutely the root of a large proportion of sleep challenges with little ones. But overtiredness is a reason you’re going to start to see these.

If your child has them a lot, I would question how much sleep are they getting overall? If they should be getting daytime sleep, are they and are they getting enough? If they’re past the age of daytime napping, how else could they be getting more rest? Are they going to bed too late or is bedtime all over the place? Could we bring that earlier and make it consistent?

I would say spot it. You’ve got to spot it, then you’ve got it. Where is it that they could be getting overtired? Where are we depleting and where can we top up and replenish that sleep? Because usually once we overcome overtiredness, we stop seeing these episodes.

So there we have it, that’s what parasomnias are, how you can handle them when they happen and things that you can do to try to prevent them.

Parasomnias, are bizarre, but they are very real. They happen, and if we can avoid them then you are removing something that creates disturbance in your child’s sleep. Because if they’re prone to having these parasomnias, it’s disturbing their sleep. Every time they’re having one, it is a disturbance and it’s interrupting their sleep and it will slightly diminish the quality of a night’s sleep.
I hope that has helped and given you a brilliant understanding of the basics of parasomnias, one of the many reasons for night wakings. Next week I’m going to be exploring night wakings in the sense of how to respond to them.

Take care!

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