Boys and Sleep by Margaret Hart

Over the last several years, my son has experienced a handful of episodes of what I call “sleep sitting,” a condition where he wakes up in the middle of the night, sits up in his bed, and begins to shout, cry, and mumble unintelligibly.   I didn’t know until recently that these episodes are referred to as “night terrors,” and are more common with boys than girls. My son has not been diagnosed but his symptoms seem textbook.   

When these episodes first began, I was terrified.  I had tried to talk to my son, but it was as if he was deaf and blind.  I tried to touch him or sit beside him and hug him, and rock him, but he would often flail his arms and shout and become agitated.   It was frightening because he didn’t seem to know who I was,  or be able to see me or recognize my voice.  

In an effort to find out more, I Googled “sleep disorders with boys,” and came across an article dated August 2013 on children’s sleep problems published by the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry.  It seemed to closely describe what my son:   “the child with sleep terrors will scream uncontrollably, and appear to be awake, but is confused and can’t communicate.”    If my son does suffer from this condition,  it is mild.  And it’s only happened a handful of times.  Nonetheless, we are investigating.

When it first started happening, several years ago, I quickly realized that it seemed to be associated with heat.  He would be sitting up, sweaty, and warm to the touch.   I would take his temperature and it would be normal.  I chalked it up to his being too hot.  In general, he sleeps better when he is cool.  So I’d pull back the blankets or covers, he would quickly curl up, and fall back asleep.

In other instances, it seemed he just  needed to go to the bathroom,  but didn’t want to wake up to go.  So once or twice when  he was younger, my husband carried him, often fighting, into the bathroom and sat him down on the toilet. Once he went, he would carry him back.  Within seconds, he’d be fast asleep.

About three months ago, we had an interesting episode of sleep sitting.  This time, he got up, walked over to his dirty clothes hamper, took off the lid, pulled down his pants and looked like he was going to urinate into the hamper!   I shouted his name, and my husband grabbed him, and we raced him into the bathroom, all the while, he was still asleep and crying. Once he was finished, he walked back  to his room, and was sound asleep within seconds.

This past week we had two episodes in one night and it gave me pause.  Because I always sleep with one ear open, I heard him shout.  I nudged my husband, who said “wait, he’ll fall back asleep.”    Another loud cry.   We both jumped out of bed and ran to his room to find  him sitting upright and alternately  mumbling, sobbing and shouting.

We tried talking softly to him but he did not respond.  The shouting got worse:  “no, no, no,” he was saying.  I thought he was having a nightmare because he seemed distressed.  I told my husband to do something.  He told me to calm down.  We both felt a little helpless.

We tried talking to our son, but nothing worked.   We tried soothing  him and tucking him back under the covers, but he was not responding.  He was kicking and thrashing.  My husband and I started arguing over what to do, and I had to leave the room. After a few minutes, when the crying had not stopped, I went back into my son’s room, and asked my husband to let me have a try.  Eventually, he settled down and went back to sleep.    

Less than one hour later,  I heard shouting again. We went to his room.  I insisted to my husband that our son probably had to use the bathroom.  So my husband got him out of bed and walked him to his bathroom.  He urinated for what seemed like 10 minutes. Then he stomped back to bed and fell asleep.

The next morning at breakfast I asked my son how he was feeling.  “Good,” he replied.  I asked him what was wrong last night that had him so upset.  “What do you mean?” he asked.   When I told him what he had done, he just laughed.  He had no memory of it whatsoever.  The AACAP article says  “The child usually has no memory of the sleep terror in the morning.”   The article also said that sleepwalking usually appears between the ages of 6 and 12. My son is almost 9, and his first episode probably happened a year or two ago.

After researching this topic more, I found out that there are various causes, none of which really seemed to apply to our situation.  We will be seeing our pediatrican this week.  The good news, according to the AACAP, is that as they mature, children overcome sleep problems.  Still, it’s just one more thing to add to my ever-growing list of motherhood worries.  

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