I've said it before and I know I'll say it again: night terrors are not nightmares. Nightmares are something I can safely bet all children experience at some time or another. Night terrors, however, are something entirely different. Usually they leave a baby or child absolutely inconsolable. Just knowing how little you can do to make your kid feel better is just one of the many struggles every mom with a kid who has night terrors knows all too well.
Our oldest child is now 7. When they (my child prefers to use gender-neutral pronouns) were just a baby, around 18 months or less, they began having severe night terrors. Their screams would pierce through the walls and rattle every sleeping bone in our home. My partner and I would rush into the room and I would grab them from their crib, holding their sweaty body close while it thrashed in real or imagined agony.
The websites all say these terrors should last 30 minutes at most. I can't say the same for my little bean. Their terrors lasted hours and occurred nightly for at least a year, tormenting our entire household in the process. When my partner and I weren't sobbing with our own feelings of helplessness, we were trying (and failing) to soothe them. When we weren't actively experiencing the night terror fall-out, we were worried about the next time night terrors would appear. It wasn't an easy situation to process and survive, to be sure, especially because we were dealing with the following struggles:
The Sleep Deprivation
I'm talking the worst sleep deprivation in the history of the universe. This is coming, mind you, from a person with chronic childhood/young adult insomnia and three children.
The Ringing Ears
I thought my ears would never stop ringing. Sometimes it was hard to know when the screams ended and the ringing in my ears began.
Judgement from other parents who automatically think my child is just having nightmares and I'm being dramatic.
False. No. Wrong. Alternative facts.
The Short-Lived Relief
Even without any sleep whatsoever, the morning brings relief when your nights are filled with your child's inexplicable and never-ending terror. With that relief, however, comes the knowledge that you're just going to repeat the process come nightfall. In other words, the relief is short-lived, and incapable of erasing your inescapable reality.
Every night, during every night terror episode, I found myself wondering if something was seriously wrong with my child and I wast just failing to find it or acknowledge it. I couldn't help but wonder if I would ever be able to adequately bond with my child, because I was incapable of helping them through this terror. Would it ever stop? If not, what in the hell am I going to do?
Every single question brought with it a wave of fear.
I'm not proud of this, but I was so angry when my child was having night terrors. I knew my partner had night terrors as a child. Logically, of course, I knew it wasn't his fault that our newborn experienced the same horror he did. But I found myself unintentionally and sometimes unconsciously livid with my partner for "doing this" to our child.
I couldn't do anything to comfort my baby. Literally nothing helped them. For hours upon hours I would hold them tight and close to my body. I would coo and cuddle and sing. I would walk, bounce, and rock. Meanwhile, they would scream blood-curdling screams that sounded like the world was ending.
The Violent Imagery
Maybe it's because I'm a visual and experiential learner that, while my baby screamed for hours, my mind would come up with the most frightening scenarios of what they must've been experiencing to reproduce the sounds coming out of their mouth. The incomprehensible violent imagery that shot through my brain each time my baby gasped in my arms was shocking.
As I've previously stated, night terrors are not nightmares. One of the indicators that what a child is experiencing is not a nightmare, but a night terror, is their inability to be soothed. Not being able to soothe my child while they writhed in agony is the most helpless feeling in the world.
For that seemingly endless stretch of a year, where night terrors were more present than not, my partner and I had insurmountable apprehension every night. Would tonight be a reprieve for our little one, or another night of inconsolable fear? Once several months had passed with nary a terror, the apprehension transformed into fear for when our as-yet unborn children would go through this phase.
Fortunately, our 5 year old has only experienced your normal nightmare. Nothing that can't be soothed by a mama hug, kiss, and extra cuddles. With our 1 year old, of course, the apprehension has returned. I hope, with every peaceful night of sleep, that our youngest never has to experience the night terrors of our first.