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Our daughter (age three-and-a-half) wakes up screaming almost every night, but she's not really awake. Help!
Night terrors can be frightening for parents to witness. A child with typical night terrors awakens from a state of deep sleep, sits up in bed, lets out a piercing scream, and appears pale and terrified. She may stare with eyes wide open at an imaginary object, cry incoherently, breathe heavily, perspire, and (as you have found) be completely unreceptive to attempts to console her. The episodes can last five to ten minutes, and the child usually falls back into a deep, calm sleep afterwards.
Unlike nightmares, when the child fully awakens, remembers the scary dream, and has difficulty re-entering sleep without nighttime parenting, children with night terrors don't remember this bizarre nighttime activity because they aren't fully awake during the episodes. As a result, children with night terrors are unlikely to develop a fearful attitude about sleep or to seem sleep-deprived the next day. While scary for parents, night terrors seldom bother children, and lessen with increasing age.
It sounds like you are giving your child the best therapy there is: your love and availability. Initiate some quieting bedtime rituals – a pleasant game, a relaxing story, a back rub, and soothing music. Children often replay before- bed rituals in their sleep, so pleasant and relaxing bedtime rituals are less likely to trigger nightmares or night terrors.