Experts in Colorado say screen time with television and video games could be making sleep disorders like night terrors worse in children.
Dr. Ann Halbower treats children suffering from night terrors as the director of the Pediatric Sleep Medicine Program at Children’s Hospital Colorado. She says night terrors occur often in toddler-age children precisely because they are such efficient sleepers.
"They get stuck in sleep," Halbower said. "They can't wake up. Only part of their body wakes up. Their body wakes up and their mind is still fast asleep."
In videos posted to YouTube, children having night terrors are shown screaming and crying and not reacting to parents' attempts to reassure them. Doctors say that's because the children are actually sleep, so they can't hear or see their parents. Experts advise not to touch or try to wake someone having a night terror.
"The best thing to do is to gently try to guide the child into a lie down position so the child goes back into active sleep," Halbower says. "If you try to wake them up or shake them these [night terrors] go on and on."
Halbower is treating a three-year-old girl named Aspen whose parents say she is having two night terrors every night.
"It's like you're seeing a different person, and you can't do anything," Aspen's mother Katrina said. "You can't wake her up. She's terrified. She screams for you. But you can't console her."
Doctors have a number of suggestions to prevent night terrors in children, including:
- Establishing a consistent and calming bedtime routine.
- Making sure children are not staying up too late.
- Put children to bed in a cool, dark and quiet bedroom.
- Cut down screen time with TVs, video games, and tablets in the evening before bed.
"Kids who are up and paying attention to an electronic device are sleeping less," Dr. Halbower said. "Sleep deprivation can make these disorders worse because kids when they're overtired tend to have more of these confusional arousals."
Aspen's mother said the family has tried just about everything that has been recommended to them, from changing bedtimes, to changing their nighttime routine, to seeking help from a chiropractor and an occupational therapist, and even having the little girl sleep in a tent. Because the night terrors have not subsided, the family brought Aspen to the sleep medicine program for help.
Doctors say children who are having excessive night terrors, like Aspen, may need additional medical attention such as medication. Doctors also monitor such patients for seizure disorders with symptoms that mimic night terrors.
Aspen's mother says while the incidents are terrifying for her as a parent, they don't seem to have any lasting impact on her little girl.
"The great thing about kids is the next day it doesn't faze them really," she says. "They don't really remember usually."