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Night Terrors Make Sleeping Kids Scream

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A vibrant, happy kid by day, 8-year-old Cody Gross is often haunted late at night.

Several times a week, Cody experiences what is called a night terror. While still asleep, he sits up, and sometimes runs around, screaming fearfully.

His parents have been wrestling with his frightening sleep disorder for the last four years.

"He usually wakes up screaming," Cindy Gross said. "He'll come running down the hallway."

His father has attempted to wake him up.

"I'll grab him and hold him, and sometimes he feels that I'm part of the attack on him, and he's struggled and kicked to get away from me," Bob Gross said.

Using a night-scope camera, Good Morning America visited the Grosses' home in Wayne, N.J., to monitor Cody's sleep for 18 days. The tapes show the boy abruptly sitting up in bed, eyes wide open, breathing rapidly, screaming or mumbling and clearly distressed. But the next day, he remembers nothing.

He does understand what a night terror is.

"It's when you get scared," Cody said. "Night terrors is when you walk around the whole entire house" without knowing it.

More Than Just Nightmares

Night terrors are a type of sleep disorder that usually affect children between the ages of 3 and 8. Dr. Tracy Carbone, director of the Pediatric Sleep Disorders and Apnea Center at the Valley Hospital in Ridgewood, N.J., has treated Cody for the past four months.

"Night terrors are the most dramatic of all arousal disorders in children," Carbone said. "In medieval times, people thought that the devil was actually sitting on the chest of the person experiencing the terror."

Doctors do not know why children have them.

"Many parents fear that there may be some underlying psychopathology behind the terror, but we know in general this is absolutely not the case," Carbone said.

There is, however, a large genetic component to the disorder. Studies show that 96 percent of children who have night terrors have another family member who has experienced a sleeping disorder that involves partial arousal.

Night terrors, which may last from 30 seconds to 20 minutes, are very different from nightmares, the scary dreams that wake us up. Nightmares usually occur late at night, while night terrors happen during the first and deepest phase of sleep - the same time that sleepwalking and sleep talking also occur.

A child who wakes from a nightmare may be frightened, but he or she would rarely be disoriented, and would be able to recall the dreams.

Overtired Next Morning

On mornings after the night terror episodes, Cody is next to impossible to wake up.

"We go in and out of the room several times, shaking him, trying to get him up," Bob Gross said. "At times he wakes up crying because he's so overtired."

As Good Morning America cameras rolled one night, Cody bumped his head as he frantically tried to escape from his room. On another night, a clearly terrified Cody tried to open his window.

The terrors occur three to four times a week and often several times a night. Cody's parents are worried not only about his lack of sleep; they are filled with fear for his safety.

"There's times that he has tried to hit the front door to get out," Bob Gross said. "We have an alarm system on the house. I think most people arm when they leave the house. We arm it when we go to bed 'cause if he opens the door we'll know it."

Other than setting the alarm, his parents don't know how to protect their son.

"I was very helpless and felt helpless," Cindy Gross said. "Nothing I could do would, you know, could make him feel better."

What Triggers the Terror?

Experts have identified several triggers - including unfamiliar surroundings - something Bob Gross learned the hard way on a recent camping trip with Cody and his brother, Bobby.

"He woke up at about 1 o'clock in the morning," the father said. "It took me a long time at that particular instance to get him to calm down, and 20 minutes, a half-hour later, the same thing. It happened three times. And we woke up the whole campground."

A clearly troubling situation turned even more disturbing when Good Morning America's camera caught Cody sleepwalking out of his room and returning several minutes later.

"Besides the night terrors - I, we were very shocked - at how often he was up during the course of the night," Cindy Gross said. "There were a lot of times when he was up when we didn't even know it."

Research shows most kids outgrow night terrors by the age of 8. As Cody gets older, that's a dream the whole family would love to see come true. They are currently considering medications to help with the disorder and have made sure his room is safe for the nighttime wanderings.

"My hope is that he'll grow out of these night terrors and that, you know, there'll be some resolution down the road with him," his mother said.

Tips for Parents

If you think your child is having night terrors, start by going to pediatrician to get a sleep study done to find out for sure.

You should never wake a child during a night terror. Let the spell pass, and make sure to ease the child back into a sleeping position when it is over.

Overtiredness may lead to night terrors. Increase the amount of sleep a child is getting and make sure there is a consistent bedtime schedule and calming pre-bedtime routines.

Since the child may be stumbling around the room while in the midst of night terrors, be sure that there is nothing in the room that would injure the youngster. More than 2 million children suffer from some type of sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea or insomnia. The following are signs that a child may have some type of sleep disorder, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. The child sleeps in an abnormal position, with the head off the bed or propped up with many pillows. Snores loudly and often. Stops breathing during the night for a short period, followed by snorting, gasping or completely waking up. Sweats heavily during sleep. Has behavioral problems at school or home. Sleeps restlessly. Is difficult to wake up, even when it seems the child has had enough sleep. Has headaches during day, particularly in the morning. Is irritable, aggressive or cranky. Falls asleep or daydreams in school or home. To find out more, visit the American Academy of Sleep Medicine online ( or the Valley Hospital's Pediatric Sleep Disorders and Apnea Center (valleyhealth.comvalley_hospitalVH_Ped_SD_Ap_Center.html).

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Copyright 2003 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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