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Two-Year-Old Having Night Terrors
Q: My two-year-old daughter is not sleeping at night. This has been going on for three months. Every night she wakes up in a fit of terror, screaming, hitting, and pushing us away. Her pediatrician said that the problem is nightmares and it will pass. We have tried everything but it does not seem to subside. She is only averaging about six hours of sleep a night and an hour and a half during the day. The only way she seems to be able to stay asleep is if either my husband or I sleep in her room. Should I consider taking her to see a sleep specialist?
A: It sounds like your daughter may be having night terrors. Night terrors happen when a child (usually a toddler) arouses from a deep sleep without totally waking up. She might be violent, disoriented, and completely unaware of anyone else being around her. Even though it might seem like she is having a nightmare, she actually is in a state of sleep where she doesn't dream at all. And because she's not dreaming, she won't have any bad memories of a scary nightmare.
Parents often try to wake up their children when they are having night terrors to try to comfort them. Actually, the best thing to do is try to keep your daughter asleep. If she isn't awakened, she will go back to a normal sleeping pattern at the end of the episode. Try to keep her safe during thrashing episodes by moving away objects that she might knock over.
Night terrors eventually go away without any treatment at all, but the hard part is waiting for that time to come. Some doctors have tried using medicines to try to treat night terrors, but for the most part, they are not helpful and usually not recommended. Try to be patient and talk with your pediatrician for more reassurance and education about night terrors.
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Henry Bernstein, M.D., is currently the associate chief of the Division of General Pediatrics and director of Primary Care at Children's Hospital, Boston. He also has an academic appointment at Harvard Medical School.