Let’s get this straight from the get-go. ‘Night Terrors’ are not ‘Nightmares’, they are quite distinct, and until I had a child I didn’t realise that. Night terrors can occur in adults as well as children, although I have to say I don’t know any adults that have experienced it, my daughter has woken up a number of times with night terrors, and it is not a nice experience.
Apparently, stress earlier in the day, being over-tired or eating a heavy meal before bedtime can trigger an episode of night terrors, although this is apparently not an exact science.
When my daughter had night terrors it was literally a case of her screaming the house down at some random time in the night (or early morning!). My daughter has a number of different levels of crying, ranging from a low level whinge (usually when she can’t reach a toy or something), to ‘I’m frikken serious, you need to do something NOW!’. Normally she’ll start at the lowest level and work her way up to the highest if she doesn’t get what she wants. With night terrors, you go straight to Defcon 1. No warning. Just full on screaming and crying.
My daughter was inconsolable when she had the night terrors, and my first tip on how to deal with them, is that pretty much, you can do nothing but hold baby and try to sooth her. Don’t expect her to calm down anytime soon, or, seemingly, even recognise you! I’d guess that my daughter was barely awake but was very scared about something.
The terrors can last quite a while. I’d guess up to 20-30 minutes, though they could be over sooner. I don’t think it made a difference if the light was on or off whilst I was holding her, so I’d just leave it off as it will be a signal to her that it is still night and she’ll have to go to sleep.
You might find that if daddy can’t calm baby down, mummy might be able to, or vice-versa. In fact, twice I’ve given up after 10 minutes and put my daughter back in her cot so I could fetch mummy, and surprisingly, she just calmed down and went back to sleep on her own in the time it took me to walk out of her bedroom and into mine. Pretty weird behaviour going from psycho-kid to sleeping beauty in the space of 10 seconds, but you might consider giving that technique a try, if it doesn’t work, send your other half in instead.
Going through night terrors can be frustrating for a parent, but imagine how it is for the poor kid. Keep your cool and do what you can and you’ll get through it.