Family life

Help! My daughter is having night terrors

Just when Jennifer Pinarski thought her daughter was past the sleepless baby stage, night terrors are keeping everyone awake at night.

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Photo: iStockphoto

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children.

My daughter Gillian (who is now three) has always been a lousy sleeper. By lousy I mean she slept like every other newborn: she woke up every few hours to nurse or have her diaper changed. The problem is that even after she was weaned and out of diapers, her habit of getting up several times a night was impossible to break. That said, over the summer there were a handful of nights where everyone in our house slept through the night. I really thought we’d turned a corner and that, after years of disturbed sleep, my daughter had finally developed a good sleep pattern — that is, until earlier this week, when Gillian developed night terrors.

Each day this week she’s been awake at least four times a night, screaming and inconsolable. On Tuesday, Gillian was awake from 11:00 p.m. to midnight crying incoherently and semi-conscious. It’s been a difficult week for everyone (her howling keeps us all awake), but especially me, because I’m the only one she’ll accept a cuddle from when she’s in the middle of a terror.

Another wrinkle in Gillian’s recent sleep disturbance is that she fights bedtime even more violently than before. We all know that parents have a love/hate relationship with bedtimes (“Hooray! The peace and quiet is worth the 45 minutes of toothbrush fights”), but since Gillian’s night terrors began, she actually seems afraid to fall asleep. The only way she falls asleep is if I’m reading to her until she passes out. Sometimes this means four or more books and, as much as I love reading to my kids, at the end of the day, I really just want to fall asleep too.

Now, experts all say that night terrors are a normal and healthy part of childhood development and that kids won’t remember a thing in the morning, but when I was tweeting about night terrors and nightmares last night, almost everyone responded saying they vividly remember bad dreams from their own childhood. Even me, there are horrible nightmares I had between the ages of six and eight that I still remember — and sometimes still have.

Read more: How to handle kids’ nightmares >

Part of me wonders if recent family stresses are contributing to Gillian’s night terrors, because everything else in her life has stayed the same — lots of healthy fruits and veggies, water, fresh air and exercise. And I know that this too shall pass (our son went through a spell of night terrors as well), but still, I wish telling her to have sweet dreams actually worked.

Have your kids had night terrors? How did your family manage it? Tweet me @jenpinarski.