Always Real, Makes Me Sigh, Modern Medicine


You know what the worst part of motherhood is? 

It’s not the vomit, although that ranks right up there, or the potty training or the southside real estate I gained during (and since) my pregnancy.

It’s the helplessness.

There is no worse feeling in the world than when you see your child in distress and are unable to help, to soothe, to make it go away.

If you have a child who has night terrors, then you know what I’m talking about.

One night this past summer, about an hour after I had put Sean to bed, I heard a blood curdling scream coming from his room.  I ran down to his bedroom to see what on earth was going on and found him sitting up in his bed on his knees, seemingly wide awake, breathlessly screaming and pointing at something in the corner.

He was not just crying — he was wild-eyed and shaking like a leaf.  He was terrified in every sense of the word. There was nothing that I could see in the corner.  Nothing in the room was amiss.  He didn’t even seem to notice that I was in the room.

He got out of his bed and with both hands clenched into tight trembling fists to his chest, he started backing away as though there were a vicious dog in the corner. I tried to pick him up and comfort him, but that just seemed to agitate him.  He thrashed and twisted and kicked trying to get away.  He was sweating and his heart was racing.  His eyes were open, but he was not awake.  He wouldn’t respond to my voice.  There was nothing I could do to help him.

After about 15 minutes, I got him back into his bed and within seconds he fell back to sleep, but I felt like I had just outrun a hungry bear. The next morning I asked him if he remembered anything unusual about the night before or if he remembered having a bad dream or anything at all, but he didn’t recall a thing.

Then it happened again the next night and the night after that.  He might skip a night or two, but all summer, every night after we put him to bed, we sat on pins and needles, waiting for the screaming to begin.  We were baffled.  We had always had a good bedtime routine with Sean.  He had always been a good sleeper. We had never had any sleep issues.  Nothing had changed in our household. Why was this happening all of a sudden?

I read up on night terrors and I learned that they are not unusual and not a result of my inept mothering.  Typically, children between ages 3 and 6 have them. They usually happen early on in the sleep cycle, an hour or two after they go to sleep. They usually last 15 to 30 minutes, sometimes longer. And there is nothing you can do but stand helplessly by and wait for them to pass.

The episodes are fewer and farther between these days.  Eventually Sean will outgrow his night terrors, but I suspect that as long as I’m a mother, this feeling of helplessness is not going to go away.

41 thoughts on “Helpless

  1. Feelings of helplessness and vulnerability are some of the first lessons I can remember learning as a mother. Mine never had night terrors, but I heard about them from others. In fact, Jordan had them pretty bad. Have you talked to Kristie or GiGi about it?

    I am glad it is getting better. Maybe this will pass soon.

  2. One thing I read said that it is sometimes helpful to uncover their feet, either during the night terror or beforehand to prevent it. Bub had one awhile back, and since then he’s gone to bed with bare feet and it didn’t reoccur.

  3. How horrible to see your child that frightened and not be able to help him. It’s a good thing he doesn’t remember them, I guess, but I’m assuming you always will. Hang in there.

  4. Wilder had some really overwhelming night terrors. He’d be sleeping soundly (just about Sean’s age) and then wake up screaming like he was in the worst pain ever. He cried so violently that he was incapable of verbalizing. Or maybe he just didn’t want to. In his toddler parlance he would just say over and over, “I can’t say about it. I can’t say about it”, which meant that he couldn’t articulate what scared him. Either that or talking about it frightened him too much. I think we went through this for about a year…maybe less. And then…it was over. Guess when he told us what it was about? Last year. The kid is 13 years old and last year he was able to tell us what it was about.
    I’m right there with you.

  5. My oldest son had recurring night terrors when he was young. I remember an incident where we found him screaming and pointing at something he called a “coon.” Of course, we could see nothing. As he grew, he no longer had terrors, but he would still cry out restlessly in his sleep. We finally started praying over him till the thrashing stopped. Then we learned that sometimes these things have a spiritual aspect and we started praying with him before he went to sleep, specifically praying for peace and safety and no terror. After we started praying for him, his sleep improved quickly. You probably already pray with Sean, so I don’t know if this is any help for you, but as for me, I’m surprised we never thought of that sooner.

  6. My son is only 7 months old and already he will wake up from sleeping (only at night, not during naps) crying like he’s scared. I know it’s different than his normal waking up crying because it just starts “bam” with no warning. It’s really hard, but thankfully he calms down when I pick him up and rock him.
    I’m going to try your reader’s suggestion of praying over him when I put him to bed. Duh, why didn’t I think of that! 😉

  7. Yes, the helplessness is so hard! I want to be able to fix everything, and sometimes I just can’t! I hope that he outgrows the night terrors sooner rather than later.

  8. Does Sean still take a nap? I used to babysit a little girl who had night terrors too, when she was about 3. I think it was due to overtiredness, because she did not want to go down for a nap, was very active and went to bed at 8/9. She didn’t have them earlier when she went down for naps, then I think they started when she stopped napping and started pre-school, which brought on a different pattern.

    I read somewhere that when they studied the brain, night terrors happen at the deepest part of the sleep, right when it is about to go to a lighter kind of sleep with dreams. A split occurs where part of the brain gets aroused but the other part goes into a deeper sleep pattern, and that is when the hallucinations occur. Kind of like the brain is short circuiting. I heard that pediatric sleep therapists can treat it with a sleep schedule that gradually decreases the amount of time that they are awake during the day, and that seems to help?

  9. I am right there with you. My BOY has been going through the same thing recently. Your description of the screaming, the eyes open yet not awake, the thrashing…it all sounds familiar. It feels like it is getting better. There were 2 nights this week where he slept through the night. The first time in weeks. There is nothing worse than holding your child as they thrash about, screaming, and not be able to calm or soothe them.

    A friend mentioned keeping track of the times he has the nightmares and to try to interrupt the cycle, wake him slightly a few minutes before. We’ve started doing that and it seems to have helped a bit.

  10. I wonder if it’s highly unusual in a younger child… ? I worry that Braden has/will have this problem, as we have already had similar episodes. (He is just a year old.)

    He’s in a crib, so he can’t get out or anything, but he just suddenly starts screaming bloody murder, sitting up, eyes open… and he doesn’t respond to anything I do (in a favorable way). Touching him usually seems to make it worse, but I pick him up and hold him close as he’ll let me, anyway, and sing and rock and try to soothe him until it passes.

    The crying is with wild abandon, as if someone is currently pinching him as hard as they can.

    It’s horribly frightening and emotionally exhausting.

    (We say prayers with him before bed, when we lay in him his crib, and upon visiting in the night… it helps sometimes, but not always.)

  11. My son had these for about a year. We figured out really fast that it was a bad idea to touch him. Talking to him seemed to help…a familiar voice seemed to do more to reach his unconscious. Smell also seemed to affect the duration of his episodes. Spraying something that smelled good and familiar seemed to help calm him down.

  12. My girlfriend’s granddaughter (she’s raising her) suffered from night terrors, too. When she interrupted her sleep cycle, the little girl said she had seen “something scary”. They started praying over her, concerned that it might be something spiritual (children can sometimes see what adults cannot) and her sleep improved.

    I don’t know, but praying over Sean can only help, right?

  13. Oh, I remember those days. Except my son used to have them around 1 am. Scared the dickens out of all of us. We finally figured out his main trigger was overtiredness, so then we could at least prepare ourselves and know when it was going to happen.

    Praying for you.

  14. I’ve never experienced night terrors with my boys, but I do know about the helplessness. I actually just wrote about it yesterday, when it came to medical intervention.

    And I suspect the helplessness will continue for as long as we live. Perhaps it’ll even be worse when they are older, and they’ll no longer allow us to comfort them.



  15. AM,

    I’m so sorry you’ve had this going on. It’s such an awful feeling, not to be able to fix it or make it better.

    We got to deal with a touch of this during the summer as well, but with our youngest. She couldn’t talk anyway, so it didn’t matter what it was cause she couldn’t tell us. We found the best thing was to make sure where she was thrashing about wasn’t going to get her hurt, and then just rubbing her back and speaking in a low voice to help her get back to the good place in her dreams. I believe her terrors were triggered by a developmental milestone she wasn’t totally ready for.

    A good friend has been dealing w/this for years (her 4YO has night terrors pretty much every night since infancy). She’s noted that it has a lot to do w/being overtired and keeps a sleep journal on her daughter. It includes her naps and night time patterns. Because of this they now try to wake her about half an hour prior to when it usually happens & it actually has helped a bit.

    I do know that this is akin to sleep walking & there’s a good chance Sean will do that as well. Anyway you can get him to take a nap these days? Or maybe moving his bedtime up earlier would help. He could just reaching a milestone developmentally and his brain is still working on getting itself worked around it. Good luck, I’m so sorry you have to deal with this.

  16. My son had nightmares that made him act like this through much of his childhood. He had two recurring dreams: one, that there was a robber in his closet, or peering in the window; and the other, that bears were after him. His voice would tremble with fear when he would tell me about it. He is now 40 years old, and still remembers the dreams vividly.

  17. My youngest daughter had night terrors AND walked in her sleep! It is such a horrible feeling to have a child so scared and not be able to do anything to calm them. By the time she had her son, and then he started having the night terrors, we had found that immediately beginning to pray for peace for them and then singing a quiet song seemed to help him.

  18. I think several events precipitated the onset of night terrors. One, we transitioned him out of his crib. Even though he likes his big boy bed, he would have been happy to stay in his crib. Second, decreasing frequency of naps — overtiredness. And there were probably a number of other contributing factors.

    For Sean, what I found to help was that after an episode began, I would find his favorite stuffed animal, Mr. Monkey, and get it in his hands. Once he started moving his hands and petting and stroking his security item/lovey, he could self-calm. I would then gently encourage him towards his bed and he would get back to sleep in no time.

    The other thing is that we got very judicious about what we read before bedtime. Which meant most of the Bible stories were out or anything remotely scary. I didn’t realize how much of children’s literature is scary.

    We do pray with and over our child daily — as Christian’s it’s just a part of our life. Having said that, to the very marrow of my bones, I don’t believe it was a spiritual thing. I totally believe God has his eye on this child and that for Sean, night terrors are just one of those developmental physiological things.

    I hadn’t heard about the uncovered feet. Since it is almost always hot here, he usually goes to bed barefooted, but covered with a blanket. Will file away that idea into my memory bank.

  19. On, my! This just broke my heart! Feeling helpless while your child is obviously hurting.

    My son (20 months old) wakes up crying and screaming at night and I’m fairly certain that they are just nightmares. He doesn’t have the thrashing and awake-but-asleep symptoms that are associted with night terrors.

    Yes, helplessness, I’m afraid, will always be there.

  20. Our son had these quite a bit, starting about age 3. You’re right, it is such a helpless feeling. Funny thing is, now he is our one child who sleepwalks and sleeptalks (quite entertaining, if you can gather your wits to realize it’s happening at 2 a.m.!). Hang in there!

  21. oh my gosh! daniel did this! it was more horrible than i have words for. he would cry out “i want mah mah mah mmmmmmommmmmmy!” over and over. it broke my heart. he’s 13 now and i’m crying again just thinking about it!
    my oldest daughter is 30, and yanno what? the feeling of helplessness still lingers *sighs*

  22. That is so horrifying. I’ve read about this but (knock on wood) it hasn’t happened yet with my Peanut, who just turned 3. All the books say you’re supposed to sit there, watch the child to make sure he/she doesn’t get hurt, and wait it out. I cannot imagine how horrible it would be to just sit and wait for it to stop!

  23. Oh, Harry used to get those. It was horrible. Sometimes they lasted for 30 minutes. He would try to crawl off the bed and scream. We were terrified he would hurt himself.

    He started younger than most – at about 15 months. But they also seemed to disappear shortly before his 2nd birthday. I hope they stay gone.

  24. Bless your sweet heart, and bless your precious child’s heart. I am so sorry. I wish I could tell you that you will quit worrying over your child someday, but you won’t. You will get past this and be on to the next hurdle…

  25. Oh, been there done that. So sorry you and your son are going through this. I used to put a damp, cool cloth on my son’s head and it helped. I rocked him many evenings. We found that if he’d gotten too exhausted in the evenings from rough-housing with his brothers the night-terrors were more pronounced. Good luck!

  26. We have been there! My Eli had these for about 6 months when he was 3. I found that putting him in the van and driving helped bring him out of it. No car seat (gasp) just sat him in the front seat with his “lovely” in his hands. He never remembered the terrors but does have memories of the “castle” I would drive by. He actually has sweet memories of the “drives” we would take when he “couldn’t sleep”. It does get better!

  27. I’m nearly 40 and still have several per week. The good news is, I rarely remember them. When I do, though — the fear I felt is indescribable. Very real and like no fear I’ve ever had in “real life.”

    I can tell you that being well rested really helps lessen the chances of them happening.


  28. Wow, I haven’t thought about this in a while. Sam had infrequent terrors when he was about 2. It is awful to go to comfort your child, and they back away from you, screaming! Sam used to sleepwalk occasionally, too, but now he seems to have grown out of all of that. (Sam is 8) I used to massage him at bedtime, I don’t know if it helped or not. BUT he never had a night terror when he slept in my bed. Strange. Maybe the “good smell” idea could be on to something? How about putting your pillow in his bed, or spraying your perfume in his room? Just brainstorming here, I am so sorry for you and your sweet boy!

  29. My son has had night terrors since he was about 2. Now, at 5 1/2, it definitely happens less often. It is so frightening – I am just thankful that it’s early enough in the evening that we’re still awake; being woken out of a deep sleep by that screaming is SO scary.

    I’m also thankful that he never remembers it happening – I’d hate for him to have memories of being that scared.

    I hope Sean outgrows it soon! My son seems to have them more often when he’s over-tired or over-stimulated, maybe that’s something to watch to see if it’s correlated?

  30. Oh this would be SO HARD. I saw something about this on Oprah once and couldn’t believe how frightening it all looked.


    I’m sure it will pass as he gets older, but in the mean time, hang in there with him, even if he doesn’t realize you’re there. You’re a great Mom.


  31. Thank you so much for your post. About two days after I read it, my husband was convinced that out 18 m.o. son had been seeing ghosts. DH went to go get him when he heard him crying, and was distressed at how he seemed to be staring off into the back of the room. I hope I reassured him….

  32. So sorry! Fortunately, I have not had to deal with this with my own children (yet!) but as a child I had night terrors. If it’s any consolation, I think it’s much harder on the parents than the kids. I never remembered any of it and certainly had no ill effects. From what my mom has told me, it was pretty awful, but as a child, I never remembered anything but sleeping, no weird nightmares or scary stuff haunting me.
    That said, I feel for you in your times of helplessness (isn’t it good to know that God is our strength when we are helpless!)

  33. My son had sleep terrors for a long time and I learned to keep him safe in bed and ride out the storm. He had one once when we were on vacation with my parents and I thought they were both going to pass out. They were horrified but I couldn’t take the time to explain it while he was screaming, so I told them they had to wait about twenty minutes and sure enough, he fell back asleep right on schedule. I found that I could predict them; if he’d had a particularly strenuous day he’d be very likely to have at least one episode that night.

    Love your blog. I just linked to you from mine:

  34. I never heard of this before…and my daughter is already a bad night sleeper…oh, I really don’t look forward to this, I hope it doesn’t happen to her. I am happy to hear they are getting better with Sean, I read some very good suggestions from your readers, I hope they help.

  35. I know a friend who’s daughter has very bad night terrors. Their solution is to take her into the living room and put on the original Winnie-the-Pooh. She calms right down when she hears the Pooh music.

  36. My oldest daughter had night terrors for a few years. She would have them if she had a particularly busy or strenuous day. She spent a few days at my brother’s house and had one that really freaked out my sister-in-law. She called me a few days later asking questions like she thought someone was abusing my daughter. It is very hard to get someone to understand if their child never had it happen to them. One of my friends (one of those perfect parents) thought it was a discipline problem and told me once that it would never happen at her house! We don’t see her much anymore! My daughter is 13 now and hasn’t had one in years but she does occasionally sleepwalk, usually when we are staying in a hotel or camping, not at home. When she does that you would think she was awake but she’s not, it’s freaky! Boy could I tell you some stories about that!

  37. My husbands youngest daughter did that for a couple of years after her mother left (she was 4). You could set a clock by it. At 10:50 every night she’d start screaming. When she was closer to six and shortly before the terrors finally ended she told me there was a boy standing at the foot of her bed and he was going to hurt her. In her dream apparently he had come in the window. We put locks on her windows and checked them every night and soon after that the dreams stopped. They prayed everynight so I also believe her’s wasn’t spiritual.
    I had night terrors for years through puberty. It got to the point I was afraid to go to sleep and didn’t sleep more then an hour or two at a time until my mid twenties. Be happy your son is getting this over with now, it’s much much harder to deal with and get over as a adult.

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