Dad Files: The Terrifying Truth About Night Terrors

When Jack started screaming inconsolably in his crib, Steve thought the worst was happening.

Babies cry according to what ails them. In rough terms, around our house, a holler signals loneliness, a wail for hunger, a scream—fear.

The other night, Jack screamed. He’d slept about three hours, then cut straight from silence to shrieking. Before I could even start down the hall, I heard Lisa’s feet, beating toward his door. She emerged seconds later. “He’s shaking,” she said. “Something’s wrong.”

“I’m sure he’s fine,” I said.

“No,” she said. “Something’s wrong.”

We retreated down the hall, into our bedroom, and there, in the moonlight, I think I lost a year or so off my life. Jack couldn’t control his head or hands. He twitched and shook, his eyes glazed and leering. We called his name, repeatedly, “Jack, Jack,” yet he showed not the slightest flicker of interest or attention.

“Let’s call the doctor,” I said.

“It’s like he’s having a seizure,” Lisa said.

“Call the doctor,” I repeated.

Lisa handed Jack to me, to feel his body shake, while she retrieved her phone, and I felt a brand new kind of fear: I felt the possibility that my own life might end through the ending of this little boy—through some compromise to his health, and his possibilities. I marveled at how quickly our life had changed. Just minutes ago, all was peace. Now I was trying to coax Jack back to reality and wondering how Eli would cope with a cognitively or physically impaired brother. We handed Jack some of his toys, which he fumbled around with, his hands still jerking. “It’s like something neurological,” Lisa said, and I wondered how we’d readjust.

Jack’s head wavered, like a dandelion in the breeze, and I girded myself to help him live the best life he could possibly live under his depleted circumstances. I figured Lisa and I would never move away from Philadelphia, so we can always be near CHOP. And I wondered if I’d make it. I figured I’d call out of work the next day, to spend all my time in the hospital, by Jack’s side. And I knew I’d never survive.

Then Jack’s eyes lost that glazed look. He looked at me and Lisa, seeing. And he yawned.

“It sounds like night terrors,” the doctor said.

Night terrors?

I had read about this phenomenon before, in which people scream and thrash around in their sleep. But I never knew babies are particularly susceptible. As the doctor explained what was happening, I laughed out loud. Jack’s behavior was quickly improving, and the relief I felt was a strange kind of high—a sudden, giddy exhaustion as my whole body, so taut with fear, relaxed.

I did some more research as soon as we hung up the phone. Night terrors occur in a deep stage of sleep, from which it’s hard to awake. Watching someone during one of these attacks can be crazy-making. A baby caught in a night terror might, like Jack, open his eyes, yet they are essentially blind and still sleeping. Any parent might instinctively pick the baby up, as Lisa did, to comfort and wake him. But waking a baby from a night terror might be counterproductive, rendering it harder for him to fall back into a peaceful sleep.

Below is a video a dad made of his own child having a night terror. It strikes me as a little creepy, but from what I read, dad did everything right. He reaches in here and there to steady the boy, as he rolls around, to keep him from hurting himself. And he speaks to the boy in comforting tones. Pay attention, ’cause he is clearly not trying to wake the child. He talks to him because he knows the child might incorporate some sensory information into whatever occupies his mind.

So, dad’s voice = terror antidote.

Night terrors can be caused by anxiety, unfamiliar objects in the room, or a lack of sleep so, yes, napping really is important. But this is the kicker: They hold little to no lasting effect. The kid screams and thrashes around, sometimes for several minutes, but the episode holds little to no lingering effect. For the baby.

Kids generally stop having night terrors after age 10, and they rarely require any sort of medical attention. Parents, on the other hand, may need a big glass of red wine. For medicinal purposes. Listening to your child scream, as if it’s being chased by a coven of giant witches with bad breath and flying monkeys circling their heads, is tough.

The good news is, Jack won’t remember that at all. The bad news is, I’ll never forget it.

I can’t find a glass big enough to hold that much red wine. And believe me, I looked.


Steve Volk is Philadelphia magazine’s senior writer. A new dad to twin boys, he blogs about the ups and downs of modern-day fatherhood on Be Well Philly. Read the series from the beginning.

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