the anatomy of a night terror

Tonight I caught the whole thing, from beginning to terrifying end. I walked by your room just as your confused babbling started. Peeking my head through the door, I watched as it escalated. As soon as the first shrills started, I sent your sister into my room. These episodes are hard on her too.

Then, your panicked cries out for “mom” started. My instinct told me to respond. “It’s okay baby, I’m right here sweetheart,” but I’ve tried that before and the cries only got worse. I know better now. Against all impulse, I remained quiet.

Instead, I hunkered down in the fetal position, on the floor next to your bed. I locked my arms around my own legs to keep them from automatically reaching out to you. That was a lesson learned the hard way too. Though you are calling out for me, you don’t want me. A disconnect not easy for me to process.

“MOM! MOM! MOM! MOM! MOM! MOM!” The terror, the angst, the high-pitched shrieking of your voice; they’re stabbing me.

I play out the day in my mind. Was it something I did? Are you overtired? What did you eat tonight? Was it something I said?

I’ve been over tired lately myself. Stressed, short-tempered. Your dad’s been gone and I’ve been barely keeping it together. Is this how my short-comings as a mom manifest themselves in you? Or is it because we took your binky away before you were ready? Whatever the reason, I am so sorry, love.

You continue, yelling and thrashing now. “MOM! MOM! MOM! MOM! MOM! MOM!”

I begin to count the number of times you say, “mom,” as a way to pass the time, like we do with red cars on the road.

Twenty-nine, thirty, thirty-one . . . Oh god, I can’t take it, enough of that.

I look around the room for a clock to time the terror. From what I’ve heard and read, they typically last about five to ten minutes. This? Has been an eternity. Way beyond five minutes in my mind, but accurately, just about five minutes.

Your arms are reaching out now, each time you say, “mom.” As if you’re trying to grab a hold of me, for safety and comfort. I’m crumbling inside. And now, your eyes are open and  you’re looking directly at me. How can I not grab you, hold you and make this okay? The flailing increases. I place pillows around you so you don’t impale yourself on the bed frame. It’s The Exorcist re-incarnate. It’s my baby, hurting, struggling.

Not what any mother wants to see.

I think about an unknown time in the future, when you might really be hurt, in trouble, in pain. And you might call out for me. Not from underneath the cloud of sleep or the shadows of your pink room, but when you’re older and something in life is actually hurting you. There is a chance I won’t be there to help you, to place pillows around you, and that thought is too hard to grasp.

So I go back to counting. I count the number of times you laughed today. Thirty-two, thirty-three. I can sense within my body’s clock that it is nearing ten minutes. And sure enough, you begin to yawn and you set your head on the pillow.

I kiss your button nose and candy lips. I see your sweet soul though your quarter-Asian eyes. You return to peaceful slumber and I can breath again. Until the next time.



  1. 1
    Rachael says:

    oh poor baby and mama! that must be so hard! Is this something that she’ll outgrow? Oh I hope so :(

    • Mary says:

      Yes, I hear that they out grow them. Hope so! She’s been through a lot of change lately, dropping her nap and getting rid of her binky are the two biggest. So hard to see her like that!

  2. 2
    Mama Kat says:

    Oh sweet baby girl! That has got to be so hard to watch! I used to have night terrors as a child too. There was nothing my Mom could do. I hope they end soon!!

  3. 3
    Kristin says:

    I could have written this myself. My sweet four-year old boy has been having night terrors for, what seems like an eternity now, but has probably been more like two months. I keep a sleep journal to try to identify the patterns and predict when they’re going to occur – usually it’s because he’s over-tired, but sometimes there’s a random one thrown in to keep me off balance. And I tried the technique where you’re supposed to wake them up 15 minutes before you think they’re going to happen, but guess what? If you time it wrong, you basically trigger a night terror. That sure feels great… So now I’m back to the luck of the draw, waiting, watching the clock, and trying to protect him and keep him safe until it’s over. And hoping he outgrows them very, very soon…

    • Mary says:

      I have contemplated the waking her up strategy too but I am afraid of what you just described above. I sent her into a terror one night, not realizing she was dreaming when she asked me to rub her back. When I touched her, the terror started. Yikes! Good luck to you, and hope they end soon for both of us!

  4. 4
    La Jolla Mom says:

    She looks so much like you in that photo. Poor thing (and you). S has had a few, but they seems be linked to her being overtired. However, I have heard that’s not always the case. :(

    • Mary says:

      K, I totally think she looks like me but because of her dark hair everyone says she looks like Steve. I do think being over-tired is definitely the biggest trigger. She just recently dropped her nap, plus she has been incredibly active with summer activities so I def think the over-tired thing is it. Just trying to figure out how to help her through it and get her into a new routine.

  5. 5

    oh-so-tough. i feel ya, girl. our 2nd born used to have them regularly. after a lot of reading about it and experimenting, i found that making sure they are getting a good amount of sleep is key. is she getting to bed earlier since she gave up a nap?? that may help.

    let me know if you’d like me to forward any of the articles i found helpful.


  6. 6
    MomZombie says:

    My oldest girl had night terrors for a year or two. I panicked and did everything wrong for a long time, not understanding what was going on. Finally I realized my child was not awake, did not see me, and learned to wait them out. We lived in a condo and I always rushed to shut the windows for fear of what the neighbors would think! As mysteriously as they arrived they disappeared.

  7. 7
    Amy says:

    Our oldest had them for three years. We did wake her up 10 minutes before and it would help on the nights we timed it right. We also tried putting her to sleep with music – which was the ultimate successful method. By playing a cd of lullaby’s, she would sleep through the night without a single scream. We would turn the music off when we went to bed. Any night we would forget to put the music on or it wouldn’t repeat, she would wake up screaming. At age four she finally grew out of it.

    Good luck. Night terrors are really not fun.

  8. 8

    Poor thing!!! I have heard that these night terrors are AWFUL! I wish I could help or offer advice.

    PS- She is gorgeous!!!

  9. 9

    Oh Mary!! This breaks my heart! My daughter just turned 4 years old in June. She doesn’t have night terrors, but did have her first nightmare the other day. I felt your words deep in my gut. You painted such a vivid picture with your words, I could feel your pain and anxiety. I hope this passes and perhaps when school starts up she will get into a rhythm and not be so overtired. *sigh* <3

  10. 10
    Ginger says:

    My not-quite-2-year-old has them occasionally. Usually on days he’s overtired. His tend to last in the 20 minute range, and they’re just the most awful thing. (although he doesn’t talk much, so he doesn’t scream out mama. I can’t imagine how that hurts). They really wrench your heart. I wish there was something to do about them…

  11. 11

    Thank you for writing this post. I could have written it word for word. We’ve been going through this for two years now and I wait for the day she “grows out of it.” It breaks my heart knowing if I touch her while she is going through this it just gets worse. Now I just try to keep her save, making sure she isn’t going to get hurt. I always breath a huge sigh of relief when she finally rolls over and goes to sleep peacefully.

  12. 12

    I am no expert on sleep or night terrors, my son had them, and I don’t think he had more than a dozen – I didn’t have the resources I have now to consider – ours passed soon enough – I’d look into Natural Baby Pros if I were to have another go through it – they’ve got articles and practicioners of all sorts – the unconscious mind is a strong thing. It is obviously painful for you and her. Hugs!

  13. 13

    Oh love. Both of you. I’m sorry you have to go through it. Both of you. Peaceful sleep is ahead, I know it.

  14. 14
    Laura Frontiero says:

    I’m sitting in the dentist office with tears in my eyes as I read this heart-wrenching account. I have never experienced this……and hope beyond hope that I never have to…..It is hard to imagine Lexi’s confident little soul go through this. Thank goodness she has no memory of it.

  15. 15

    what an anxious making story, what horrible powerlessness, they’re scared someplace you can’t be. though that picture, that is one for the ages. that is WONDERFUL.

  16. 16
    Crystal says:

    Man…my oldest daughter had these…I was young, 17…had no idea what they were. Thought she was throwing tantrums. Got mad. Couldn’t figure out why she was screaming…and then getting worse when I tried to calm her down. Then I talked to her pediatrician, and found out what they were. Then I felt horrible for getting mad. She did outgrow them thankfully, and hope your little one does soon as well. It is such a hard feeling to experience as a mother, not being able to help. :(

  17. 17
    Liz says:

    Oh, they are the worst. My son (6) has them and my littlest (3) does too. And unfortunately, so does my husband, although they are much rarer for him now. I have found different things work for each of my children. My son I can touch and I just calmly agree with whatever he says and encourage him to lie down (he usually screams I don’t want to do it, I want mummy, I want to go home, type of things). My daughter, if you touch her it makes it worse, but I sing her favourite lullabies and that helps her calm down quicker. I read somewhere that they are not actually experiencing fear in this stage, it’s a physical response rather than a psychological one. And they certainly never remember anything about it in the mornings, whereas i would to be a wreck! I suppose I have got more used to them over the 4 years that they’ve been a feature of the children’s nights, and having experienced them from an adult as well, we were kind of expecting them anyway. If you can find something that you can do that doesn’t make it worse, that really helps. The feeling of uselessness is awful. And remember you are not alone!

  18. 18
    SleepingNowMama says:

    My son was experiencing these until I took him for non invasive allergy testing (holistic nutritionist). He had an odd allergy to some very common foods with the only reaction being behaviour and night terrors. Avoiding his trigger foods has changed all of our lives. I strongly suggest trying this if possible. He started sleeping (and us too) straight through the night within two weeks with no further problems. I would not have believed it had I not experienced it first hand.

Leave a Reply to Mary Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>