Eyes wide open: Sleep disorders can turn goodnight into a bad night

Illustration: Matt Pamer Illustration: Matt Pamer

Ahhhh. The kids are finally in bed. You’ve settled down on the couch for a little Netflix, maybe poured yourself a glass of vino. This is your time. And then AAAAAAAAAHHHKKKK! The shriek from upstairs sounds like someone’s been stabbed, and when you race up the stairs—two at a time—you arrive in your child’s bedroom to find him uninjured, sitting up in bed, eyes wild and unseeing, anguished wails of gibberish escaping his lips. What the what?

Welcome to a night terror, one of multiple sleep disorders that may strike your kids at any time. But as horrible as a night terror may seem in the moment it’s happening, a local sleep specialist says parents don’t need to panic.

“There’s no real memory or story that goes with it, just a whole bunch of screaming, upset behavior and the patient doesn’t realize what happened,” says neurologist Chris Winter, who runs Martha Jefferson Hospital’s sleep lab and has his own Pantops sleep clinic. He suggests letting the child ride out the night terror, and then preventing future episodes by waking the child gently about a half hour after he falls asleep, since night terrors typically occur in the first hour or two of sleep. Even touching a child’s back briefly until he stirs from sleep can short-circuit an impending night terror, he says, noting that some patients can be “cured” of the night terror pattern after only a few nights of this intervention.

While most parents expect early infancy to be a relatively sleepless time, it can come as an unpleasant surprise that sleep disorders can emerge even in previously “good” sleepers and at any age. From sleep walking and talking to bedwetting, interrupted sleep can be stressful not only for the child but for the family. And sleep deprivation is often unrecognized as a contributing factor to issues with mood and attention in children.

“Kids who are tired act hyperactive, moody and emotional, and sometimes people don’t actually link the two things—that the reason why she feels that way is he or she’s sleepy,” Winter explains.

Sleep walking and talking, like night terrors, typically go along with awakenings from a deep sleep, Winter says, and in cases where the issues are sustained over a period of time, a sleep study can be helpful to determine the underlying causes, which can range from sleep apnea to reflux.

Another common issue is bedwetting, medically known as enuresis, and while some recent studies have suggested that the issue in toddler to school-aged children is caused by undiagnosed constipation, other causes can also be unearthed in a sleep study.

So how do you know if it’s time to check your child into the sleep lab for a night?

“When your frustration level or your child’s frustration or anxiety level starts to rise, it’s probably a good indication that it’s time to go see a sleep specialist,” says Winter.

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