In last Thursday’s post I asked for feedback about night fears and
received some really great comments, both on this blog and over my
e-mail.  As comments came in, I was reminded of the importance of
vocabulary.  The term “night fears” is so close to “night terrors” that I
thought it worth distinguishing between the two.

Night fears are concerns and worries imagined and expressed by the
child while she is awake.  A child can become so caught up in a fear
that she either can’t fall asleep or wakes up worried or scared in the
early morning hours.

Night terrors, on the other hand, are defined as a medical condition.
They occur during a phase of deep non-REM sleep usually within an
hour after the child goes to bed. According to information at The
Night Terrors Resource Center
, the common thought among
researchers is that a chemical trigger in the brain causes your brain to
“misfire” and stimulate a night terror.  Some night terror symptoms
include:  sudden awakening from sleep, screaming, sweating,
confusion, rapid heart rate, inability to explain what happened, usually
no recall of “bad dreams” or nightmares, and possibly a vague sense
of frightening images.

I’ve expanded a bit more on night terrors at the end of this post.

Regarding night fears, I know you can read Thursday’s comments for
yourself, but I’d simply like to highlight three pieces of advice I
wouldn’t want you to overlook.

1. Be a comforting presence at night.  Some ways to accomplish this
include spending a little extra time with your child at tuck-in.  If you
rush through, or brush off the fears as silly, you may well hear your
child’s feet padding into your bedroom in the middle of the night.

Reassure your child that everything is alright.  Keep discussions on a
very matter-of-fact level as in-depth discussion of a fear could further
stimulate her.  Remind your child that she will feel better in the
morning, at the break of a new day.  (Similar to most adults, a child’s
coping skills diminish at night).

2. Watch your child’s nutrition before bedtime.  Carbohydrate-rich
foods can have a calming effect on the body, while foods high in
protein or sugar generate alertness, particularly when eaten alone. A
few ideas for pre-bedtime snacks are: whole grain toast and cheese, or
a small bagel and nut butter.

3. Give your child gradual exposure to more independence.  I
mentioned in Thursday’s post that my daughter would no longer go
upstairs without one of us parents alongside.  A great suggestion
included having her go to the landing alone the first night.  Then
advance to the top of the stairs alone.  Then, spend a minute alone
upstairs, then five minutes, and then do the full bedtime routine
without company.  You get the picture.  We have already started this
process with our daughter, and it is working.

A final note to parents who might be dealing with night terrors, as
defined above.  One parent, whose daughter’s night terror behavior
included sleep walking, commented how frightening it can be to watch
your daughter move around as if she’s awake, but knowing she is in a
deep sleep.  This mom said there were times she felt helpless, but
what always seemed to work was to speak calmly and matter-of-factly
to the child, gently but firmly re-directing her to her bedroom.

Night fears and night terrors are usually phases; these too will
evaporate and morph into some other stage we’ll likely be discussing
right here at Mama J’s Parenting Posts.

Mama J (Diane Fromme) is a writer, parent, and stepparent located in
Northern Colorado.  For more information on her stepparenting book,
go to




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