Strategies to calm a screaming child {in the middle of the night}

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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.

Don’t…

Don’t stress

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.

Don’t hover

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.

Do

Change locations

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?

Comments

  1. Karen B. says:

    Good advice for ways to help. It has to be so hard to watch and not be able to help. Apartment living does add stress due to concerns for neighbors. It was interesting to hear that holding Olivia tightly sometimes help. I have a little dog that is terrified of thunder. When she hears it she tries to get into the shower or bathtub and then just scratches and scratches at the surface.. One time when we were not home and it thundered she scratched the wall in the corner of a room until she was bleeding. The only thing that I have found that calms my little dog is to snuggle under covers and hold her tightly. Just like Olivia just holding her does not help, I have to have her snuggled very close to me and very securely.

  2. Thank-you for those tips Johanna. Paul sometimes has night terrors, but very seldom, and not as long or hard to stop as you describe here. It’s helped me put his “awakenings” in the night into perspective!! I keep praying for you and your family, knowing that the Lord is carrying you through these hard, hard times – and thanking Him for your example, testimony and encouragement. Warm hugs from a rainy Spain :)

  3. Elva Farrell says:

    We are praying for you.

  4. I have been praying for your whole family, especially Olivia. Both of my children have night terrors (ages 3.5 and 6.5), sometimes multiple times a night. My husband is a pediatrician so we are also constantly waking up from his pager. Some nights it feels like we don’t sleep at all. 😛 I often have friends that say their kids have night terrors also, but are coherent enough to answer questions and be calmed back to sleep in just seconds. I kindly try to explain that those are NOT night terrors, but nightMARES. Like you mentioned, you cannot console a night terror, but changing their location and atmosphere can help jolt them out of it. My kids usually have night terrors earlier on in the night, and then sometimes ALSO get nightmares later on. But with the nightmares, instead of screaming from their bed, they walk into our bedroom and tell us they had a nightmare…so different! My son’s doctor told me that it’s more likely for children who do not take naps (or are overtired) to get night terrors, because their body has to hurry to get into a deep sleep faster…something alone those lines. My children cannot nap because then they would be awake all night. But I’ve found that whether they are tired or not, they still get them. Anyway, we’ve been dealing with night terrors in our house for 5.5 years, so I know what it’s like. I hope Olivia did not get them before her illness, which means they most likely will go away completely when she is fully recovered. I am praying for you, friend! Thanks for your encouragement!

    • Thanks so much for sharing your experience. I do think Olivia’s are worse when she is overtired, but she struggles with naps too so it isn’t always easy.

  5. “sometimes a change in environment will do it” Yes!
    I have no idea how this would go over with an older child, but when Caleb had night terrors the only thing that would calm him (and worked every.single.time), other than waiting it out for 30 minutes, was to give him a bath. I was hesitant to try it at first thinking it might scare him to wake up in the water, but I think it is that idea of changing environments. Once we got him undressed and in the warm water he would settle almost immediately. Thankfully he hasn’t had any in a few months! Praying for you guys!

  6. Hana Kate had night terrors around between age 2 and 3. We found she most often had them if her sleep was really thrown off (extra late night or missed nap), she was in an overstimulating environment, or she was exposed to something emotionally disturbing (seeing something scary happen or listening to a scary/sad story). But there were other times we had no idea what actually triggered them.

    We started having her sleep with us and tried to avoid late evening outings, and that’s when they faded away—she would wake up and then sense us nearby and then go back to sleep.

    Eden has not had them (3.5), but she has slept with us, we live a slower paced life, and we don’t have the late nights we used to (many were in conjunction with a too busy church schedule), so it’s hard to tell of those might have been triggers for her. (Of course, some children have them even with those good elements in place).

    I agree, it is hard to explain that these are different from nightmares, and some people are not aware that these even exist. They are traumatic for both parent and child. (This was definitely a learning curve for me as a parent!)

    Praying you find relief, and thanks for sharing what you’re learning through this.

  7. Though Cami has some sleep issues, it’s primarily trouble with falling asleep and then once she finally does, the transition of waking her up is difficult as well (we are in the process of pursuing the “why” of this).

    But, ironically, it’s my youngest daughter (Sophia–3 y/o) who has been having night terrors and to be honest I haven’t had any idea as to how to approach dealing with them! At first I thought they were nightmares but when she was inconsolable it became clear something else was going on. It’s been different to have to deal with something “new” and from a different child (since I”m so accustomed to Cami’s needs) so honestly I’ve been at a loss as far as what to do–not to mention exhausted from waking up several times.

    All that to say….THANK YOU for sharing what you’ve learned from your personal experience with Olivia and taking the time to pass it on to all of us.

    The Lord still brings you to mind often, and I’m continuing to pray for Olivia’s full, complete healing and for grace and strength for you in the recovery process.

    • I think figuring out that it isn’t a nightmare is a huge step! Olivia has a horrible time transitioning from sleep to wake to, so if you figure anything out, I’d love to know. :)

  8. My experience has been similar with our three year old who has night terrors. I realized early on that trying to comfort her usually didn’t work because I just became part of the ongoing story line of the night terror she was experiencing. She would flinch and resist me as if afraid of me, and that’s when I realized that for all I knew she felt like it was the scary dragon from her dream picking her up (just like a tired adult can have the sound of the alarm incorporated into her dream in the moments before waking).

    Praying for you, especially at night! Glad you’re finding things that work and sharing your journey with us.

  9. Johanna, I just came across your blog today after a friend shared it on Facebook. My sister had night terrors several times a week when she was about 8-11 years old. My mom would put a cool rag on her forehead, and it usually woke her up. Just talking to her didn’t do anything because she was obviously not awake (even though she sometimes talked back). The next morning she never remembered anything even though she had been running around the house screaming. However, she always remembered the horrible recurring dream she had. Every time she had a night terror, she remembered the same dream.

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