Terror in the night

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 February, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 February, 1995, 12:00am

IT was the same almost every night. Michael would sit bolt upright in bed, stare at the corner of the room and scream as loudly as he could. Sometimes he would shout 'No, no. Go away!' It is not surprising that in the old days this sort of distress in children was ascribed to demons. Even today, parents find 'night terrors', as they are called, spooky.

'He was obviously terrified,' said Michael's mother, June Jordan, the co-ordinator of Cry-sis, a British charity which supports parents with children who sleep little or cry excessively. 'Because it is dark and the middle of the night, you look where he is staring to see if you can see something. You really spook yourself out.

'If I tried to comfort Michael he'd shove me away as if I was a two-headed monster,' she said. 'If you try to comfort them, you become part of the terror so you actually make things worse.' Ms Jordan recalls one woman who sought help from Cry-sis over her child's night terrors. The woman was convinced her house was haunted - that there must be something in that corner.

She says that during a night terror, a child appears to suddenly wake up. Their eyes are probably open and they may scream, cry and thrashing around. Or they may sit motionless, staring at the corner of the room.

Ms Jordan would sit by Michael until the screaming stopped and he went back to normal sleep. The episode lasted up to 10 minutes. Sometimes she could wake him by turning on the light breaking the terror.

'There was never any trouble getting him back to sleep because once he'd woken up, he'd forgotten. In a way, they're easier than nightmares. With nightmares, they know what frightened them and don't want to go back to sleep,' she says.

Children between the ages of two and six are most commonly affected but attacks can go on into early puberty. About three per cent of all children experience them.

For many, the terror is absolutely predictable, happening the same time most or every night. It can last from between one and 20 minutes, usually happening within the first two hours of the child falling asleep.

During the terror it is hard to wake the child and gradually they go back to normal sleep. Unlike nightmares, in the morning the whole incident will be forgotten.

Dr Bryan Lask, consultant psychiatrist at London's Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, recognises night terrors cause intense distress to parents and children. But they are rarely linked to other psychiatric or physical problems.

The cause of night terrors remains unclear, though they are thought to represent a fault in the transition from deeper to lighter phases of sleep.

Night terrors have been treated with a variety of drugs. But Dr Lask says there is no evidence of their success and is concerned about possible side-effects. Instead he advocates a simple remedy that usually halts the night terrors completely.

He recommends that parents note the time that the episodes normally occur and whether there are other signs such as sweating, increased movement and heart-rate.

They should then wake their child 10 to 15 minutes before the terror is due to occur or at the onset of the other signs. After four to five minutes the child should be allowed to go back to sleep.

Dr Lask's research has shown that in most cases night terrors stop within a week. Once the terrors have stopped, children do not need to be woken further. In a minority of cases, the terrors returned a few weeks later, but were totally eliminated after the waking treatment was resumed for a further week.

'Interruption of faulty slow-wave sleep seems to cause reversion to a normal sleep pattern and resolution of the disorder,' he says. The same technique can also be used to treat sleep walking.