I’ve mentioned that Olivia has trouble sleeping. While things aren’t where we’d like them to be yet, and sometimes we have setbacks (like last night!), we are definitely moving in the right direction.
If you have ever had a child with night terrors, you know what it is like to have a screaming child that you simply can’t calm down. Different from nightmares, with this type of screaming the child is usually inconsolable and usually has no memory of it. This is really hard as a parent, because we desperately want to help them, and often there isn’t much we can do. While she is improving, Olivia sometimes has these multiple times a night. Over the past two months I’ve figured out a few strategies that help.
Mind you, sometimes none of these things help and we simply have to calmly wait for the screaming to stop, but these are some of things I’ve learned by trial and error. Whether you actually have a sleep problem or not in your home, you might find some of these helpful for calming a distressed child in the middle of the night.
This is difficult for me to do simply because we live in an apartment with very poor insulation (read, you can hear everything). The minute Olivia starts screaming, my first thought, is “get her quiet before the neighbors get upset.” The more frustrated I get trying to calm her down, the more agitated she gets.
When a child is having a night terror, they are not aware of what is going on. They can’t think logically, and it usually isn’t something you can convince them is not there (like a nightmare). They are simply terrified, and often they don’t know exactly why.
As hard as it is, just staying calm as if it is the most normal thing in the world to be screaming at one in the morning is usually the best course of action. It will stop…eventually.
This, another hard one for a parent, is a common mistake we’ve made. We want to soothe, calm, and help, and often we end up agitating them even more. They are not coherent, so getting close, patting them gently, caressing, or trying to “talk” them out of it actually makes things worse. They may even fight back. Have you ever been upset or sick and well-meaning loved ones kept hovering around you asking you what they could do and if you were okay? Sometimes that was more irritating than helpful, right? I think sometimes kids feel like that.
Hovering over a child who is screaming uncontrollably is one of the least helpful things you can do. (I’ll share my alternatives below).
Don’t overtire or over-stimulate
This is not actually for during the night, but rather a preventative strategy. I’ve found that the more tired Olivia is, the more problems she has during the night. This is a little tricky because Olivia tires very easily right now. What might have been normal activity before, now completely exhausts her. When you have a child that has sleep problems, you have to learn to fiercely guard their sleep.
Over stimulation near bed time is also a problem. Olivia struggles a lot more during the night if she has had too much going right before bed. This means that evening activities need to be severely limited…unless we want to be up dozens of times in the night.
It is almost impossible to calm Olivia without physically leaving the room she’s sleeping in. Simply walking to the living room will often jolt her out of the screaming. Also, turning on a lamp will sometimes help bring her out of the screaming. The basic idea is that you need them to wake up out of it, and sometimes a change in environment will do it. I’ve even had her lie down on the cool wood floors before, and that has helped bring her out of it. This doesn’t always stop the screaming immediately, but for Olivia if she starts waking up then I can start trying to calm her. Until then it is nearly hopeless.
Talk in a calming voice
This is something I discovered on accident, but Olivia calms down when I just start talking to her. Not a “shh, Mommy’s here,” but just regular talking in a gentle voice. While she enjoys me singing to her when she is calm and falling asleep, if she is screaming, singing just seems to irritate and stimulate her more. But when I talk about anything in a calm, gentle voice, she often stops screaming fairly quickly.
Hold tightly…or not
While hovering is not helpful at all, sometimes holding them very tightly in a hug is reassuring. This depends on the child, and for Olivia it depends on the night. Usually, I have to try a couple of times the wrong thing before I know which night we’re on. If she is extra stimulated by touch that night, then holding her tight doesn’t work. But if I do hold her, a tight embrace is always better than just gently holding her. The tightness of the hug can help draw them back out of it. I will often feel Olivia’s body start to relax as I hold her tightly and talk reassuringly to her. Once her body starts to relax, I know the screaming will stop fairly soon after.
And then there are times that no touch at all is best. Last night Olivia was so agitated that any touching was just making it worse. Letting her walk around the living room, or lie down on the floor crying for a few minutes is usually best. I’m always right there watching her and ready to hold her. Once she comes to me to be held, I know she’s ready to be held tightly and calmed down. Until she gets out of it enough to want to be held, she will just fight me.
None of these are magic pills, and often we’re just figuring out which thing will work on a given night. But these are the things that have seemed to consistently help. We’re learning, through trial and error, and her screaming spells have definitely gotten shorter, if not yet less frequent.
What tips do you have for calming a child in the middle of the night?