How I learned to reduce my night terrors

How I learned to reduce my night terrors
Probably the last time I slept like a baby. With my dad in 1971.


All at once that is both my favorite word and one that shakes me to my soul with terror.

Sleep and I have always had a rocky relationship. I mean ALWAYS. Ask my mom.

As a toddler, while we were living in Ft. Myers, Florida, I set a record for getting out of bed: 20 or more times. In an hour. No, that's not a typo. I just didn't want to go to bed.

Things got so bad that my mom called the pediatrician who told her to spank me each time I got up. This being 1972 to 1974, spanking a child was normal behavior, and my mom swatted my bottom once each time I got up. The next morning, she discovered that my whole left side was bruised from all the swats and she called the doctor again for more of his (obviously awesome and helpful) advice.

On call number two, my mom explained again that I was getting up 20+ times PER HOUR and spanking didn't help. He suggested that she tie me to the bed with a harness, so she called up Sears, Roebuck & Company and asked if they had any harnesses for children to keep them in bed. The kind customer service rep caught his breath and refused to sell her one, even though they were advertised in the catalog and store for just this purpose, so she went into the store and bought one. The wise male doctor highly recommended strapping me in bed, so she was just trying to be a good mother.

I kid you not. This is what the pediatrician told my mother to do. Again, we're talking pre-1975 here.

Mom says she never used it because she was worried I'd break my neck trying to get out of bed. She did use it, however, to keep me in my stroller. I guess the bottom line here is that I simply didn't want to stay in whatever spot I was told to stay.

I finally settled down and fell asleep at night, but that was not the end of my parents' nightly bedtime nightmares. Oh no. It was actually just the beginning.

Once I fell asleep, I suffered from night terrors and would wake up with blood curdling screams on a regular basis. The problem was that although I might present as awake initially, I wasn't awake; I was still asleep and there was no talking me down from my night terror. In case you're unaware, night terrors differ from nightmares. Nightmares happen during REM sleep, but night terrors happen during the deepest stage of non-REM sleep. Kids can't recall or describe their night terrors, although they are quite shaken by them. Only about 3 to 6% of all children suffer from night terrors, but most kids grow out of them by the time they are 11 or 12.

Yes, another middle-of-the-night call to my pediatrician was in order. Once again, none of his suggestions, which I'd bet my bottom dollar included giving me a nip of bourbon, worked. But do you know what did work? Carrying me around the house with a popsicle. In fact, my earliest memories in 1973 or 1974, involve being carried around the house in the middle-of-the-night coming down from the adrenaline rush of a night terror. It's truly a wonder that my parents had a second child. I was a handful.

I'd like to tell you that I outgrew the night terrors, but I remember having them in college and I sometimes even have them as an adult. There are no firm numbers of adults who suffer from night terrors, although I believe the number is significantly smaller than the number of children who suffer from them.

A bit surprisingly, even as an adult, the thing that really settles me down from a night terror is just walking around my house. I can't talk to anyone until I'm fully calmed down and, even though I'm typically able to get back to sleep, it often takes until well into the next day for me to recover from a night terror because of how disoriented and confused I get.

Night terrors used to happen more frequently to me, but in the past couple of years, I've taken two steps that I believe have helped me significantly reduce their frequency.

First, about two years ago I began a meditation practice and meditate every night before I go to sleep. Meditating allows me to let go of the day and calm my brain and body. When I don't meditate, I don't fall asleep as quickly, my overall heart rate during the night is higher, and I wake up much more frequently (see the information from my Jawbone UP below for more on this). I also seem to have more night terrors when I don't meditate.

Second, I bought a Jawbone UP. My Jawbone UP 3, tracks my nightly sleep pattern and my resting heart rate, in addition to my daily steps. In the past year, I've gone from falling asleep in about 25 minutes, on average, to 5 minutes, on average. In the morning, I can see my entire sleep cycle - light sleep, REM sleep, and deep non-REM sleep.

My sleep from Friday to Saturday, August 14 - 15, 2015.

My sleep from Friday to Saturday, August 14 - 15, 2015.

In this example from Saturday, August 15th, you can see that I fell asleep in 5 minutes and went through multiple sleep cycles throughout the night, even though I woke up once for 37 minutes. I recall waking up a bit startled, although not to the level of night terror and walking around my brother's house and out onto his deck for a little while. It calmed me down enough to allow me to get another six hours of sleep uninterrupted.

I got a total of 1 hour and 29 minutes of deep sleep (the non-REM kind) and 1 hour and 10 minutes of REM sleep. Both of these numbers are pretty good. You can also see my heart rate throughout my sleep, which ranged from about 85 to below 57 throughout the night, but I woke at 72 bpm. I blame hearing my dad scream my name, telling me it was time to get up on a Saturday morning on vacation, because on a normal morning, my resting heart rate is between 60 and 65 upon waking.

These two simple changes of meditating and purchasing a Jawbone UP have greatly improved the quality of my sleep. I've learned that I truly do function best when I'm getting eight hours or more of sleep and I've decreased my night terrors in natural and healthy ways. And that's a huge victory.

When all else fails, there are some homemade popsicles in my freezer. They still work like a charm.


This post was brought to you by ChicagoNow's monthly Blogapalooza writing exercise where we all write a post on the same topic in an hour.

Tonight's topic from our fearless leader, Jimmy Greenfield, who interrupted his vacation scuba diving with Heidi Klum in the Bahamas (seriously, that's what he told us) to give us this assignment . . .

Hey all,

Welcome to ChicagoNow's Blogapalooz-Hour!

Your challenge, if you choose to accept it, is to publish a post in one hour. Here is tonight's challenge:

“Write about sleep and the impact it has on your life now or at any point in your life”

The point of this exercise is to do it no matter what so don’t bail. Be creative, enjoy the process. Use words, images or video. Whatever you need to tell your story.

Be aware of the time. No matter when you finish, please wait until 10 p.m. to publish. Above all, please respect the deadline.

You have one hour.


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    A native of Chicago's Northwest Suburbs and resident of the North Shore, Little Merry Sunshine comes by her name honestly. The story goes that as a child, she was always so happy that she even slept with a smile on her face. Her mom nicknamed her Little Merry Sunshine. It stuck, along with her insatiable desire to focus on the good in the world and to leave it a little better than she found it. She does this by sharing her passions and dreams, what inspires her, and maybe you too, and furthering the discussion about how we can listen to our better angels. You can reach her at LittleMerrySunshineCN[at]WowWay[dot]com.

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