Michael Terman, PhD

Advertisers know that a cute baby or child is a way to attract people and spread an aura of positive feeling over a product. Some psychologists say that we are prewired to respond positively to certain characteristics of the young, such as a large head, a tiny nose, fluffiness, and a general air of helplessness. Which may be why advertisers also know that if you can’t get a baby, a kitten or puppy—or even a tiger cub—will do almost as well. At the same time, though, people are also drawn to stories and films about changelings and weird demon children whose seeming weakness masks uncanny powers and unexplainable malevolence.

Parents sometimes find themselves switching back and forth between these attitudes. Their new baby is the most precious thing in the world to them—until it wakes them for the third time in a single night and will not stop crying. Then they may start to wonder what kind of creature they have taken into their lives. Can chronotherapy offer them any understanding and relief? We hope to show you that it can.

Most children experience sleep problems at some point between infancy and adolescence. By “sleep problem” we mean a pattern of sleep that keeps the child from getting enough healthy sleep or that seriously disturbs the sleep of other family members. Some of these, such as night terrors, usually happen only rarely and are limited to a particular stage of development. Others, such as bedtime resistance, practically become routine in some families.

Two Categories of Problems

Sleep scientists divide sleep problems into two groups, dyssomnias and parasomnias. Dyssomnias are problems that interfere with going to sleep or getting enough sleep. An example would be those plaintive, repeated bedtime cries of “I’m thirsty,” alternating with “I need to pee.” Parasomnias, in contrast, are neurologically based events that break into ongoing sleep.

Parasomnias: Invasions of Sleep

Three of the parasomnias—confusional arousal, sleepwalking, and night terror—have a great deal in common. All tend to happen during the first third of the night, during deep non-REM sleep. As a rule, the child stays asleep while they are going on and does not remember them the next morning. And, scary as they may be for parents, they are basically harmless and likely to disappear as the child gets older.

Confusional Arousal and Sleepwalking

Confusional arousal is the least startling, so much so that parents may not even notice it. Children may sit up, mumble or call out, look around in confusion, and thrash about. Then after a few minutes they fall back into a deep sleep. Children who are sleepwalking, on the other hand, often get out of bed, wander around the house, eyes open, and even try to go outside. Almost half of school age children sleepwalk at least once or twice, and some do it regularly.

For the parents of frequent sleepwalkers, the first concern should be keeping the child safe. That means locking outer doors, blocking off hazardous staircases, putting dangerous objects out of reach, maybe even fastening a cowbell to the child’s bedroom door. By the way, forget that old story about the dangers of waking a sleepwalker. It is not dangerous, but it is fairly difficult as well as pointless. A better move is to gently guide the child back to bed.

Night Terrors and Nightmares

Any parent who has been through a child’s night terror retains a vivid memory of it. The child suddenly wakes up—or rather, seems to wake up—screaming. Attempts to comfort or calm the child only seem to set off a worse panic. Then, usually after just a few minutes that seem to go on forever, the child falls back asleep. Whether the parents can manage to get back to sleep is another question. And in the morning, they may be shocked to realize that their child has no idea what they are talking about.

Another common parasomnia, nightmare, is quite different from night terrors. As most people know very well, nightmares are terrifying dreams. They usually happen during the second half of the night, when REM dreaming is more frequent. Children who have had a nightmare wake up all the way, scared and upset. They seek to be comforted and may be frightened of going back to sleep, in case the nightmare returns. Both then and in the morning, they can usually recall details of the dream that scared them so. Most children have an occasional nightmare, and that should not be a cause for worry. If nightmares become frequent, however, and especially if the child is disturbed by daytime fears as well, parents should think about getting professional help with the problem.

This is an excerpt from Reset Your Inner Clock: The Drug-Free Way to Your Best-Ever Sleep, Mood and Energy. The book is a clear overview of the science of circadian rhythms and related forces shows how sleep, light, travel across time zones, shift work, and other factors affect our mood, and lives, across the lifespan.