Could Using a Pacifier Contribute to Night Terrors?

pacifier use and night terrorsParents at the end of their rope dealing with kids’ night terrors might consider weaning from the pacifier. This may seem like an odd strategy, but there is actually a scientific connection between pacifier use and night terrors.

What is a Night Terror?

Night terrors are a strange and frightening experience for parents. But children do not remember them at all. A night terror is very different than a nightmare, or a bad dream.

A nightmare is a scary dream that wakes the child and leaves him feeling terrified. He often remembers the dream vividly and feels that its dangers are still imminent after he wakes.

A night terror, on the other hand, occurs during a stage of sleep where dreams do not occur. A child may thrash around, scream, and appear frightened, but parents are actually seeing purely biological behavior. The child is not aware of what’s happening, nor will she remember the event. In fact, she will fall easily back to sleep afterward if her parents don’t wake her or ask her questions.

Why Do Night Terrors Occur?

Two factors are at play during sleep. It is a sort of “car crash” of these biological processes that causes a night terror.

First of all, the longer a child stays up, the sleepier he becomes. Sleep during the first part of the night is very deep because he has been awake throughout the day.

Secondly, children cycle through phases of deep and light sleep about every 45 minutes. When they move into light sleep, they experience a partial awakening. They may roll over, mumble a little, and resettle. If they rely on something to help them sleep, such as a pacifier, this is when they will search for it.

Toddlers sleep very deeply, much more so than adults. So the first part of the night they are overtaken by a very powerful drive to stay asleep. Sleep terrors happen when the brain passes into the light sleep phase while the drive to stay asleep is very intense. Part of the brain is fighting to wake while the other part is fighting to sleep. This push and pull creates disharmony in brain function and results in bizarre behavior.

So what part does a pacifier play in all of this?

Children who sleep with a pacifier need it to help them fall asleep. However, they don’t just need it at bedtime. They also need to find it and put into back into their mouths at different points throughout the night.

Some babies and toddlers will need to reinsert their pacifier two to three times in wee hours. Others will need to do this up to every time they cycle into light sleep. A strong association with a pacifier becomes a “job to do” and this is where the problem lies.

Having a task, like needing to find a pacifier, heightens the child’s need to wake. It also means that the child will need to wake more fully and become alert enough to look around for it. Further, his dependence upon a sleep prop inhibits his ability to connect smoothly into the next sleep cycle because he relies on outside forces to keep his partial awakening partial.

When the need to wake is high at the same time that the need to sleep is high, parts of the brain will temporarily function in awake mode, while other parts are still in asleep mode. That is a recipe for a night terror.

Any sleep prop that a child needs to help her get to sleep at night will affect her ability to handle the partial wakings that naturally occur throughout the night. When a child is extremely tired and in need of rest, she cannot actually wake up. If some sort of job to do intensifies her need to wake, while she physically cannot, a night terror can result.

Pacifiers, bottles, the breast, and even a glass of water may be the culprit. Generally, loveys or security blankets do not cause problems because they stay in place and not much needs to be done with them.

If your little one is experiencing repeated night terrors, it may be wise to take a look at her sleep setting. Look for any factors that promote waking, like bright lights or loud noises. But don’t forget to look at all the ways your child soothes himself and decide whether any of them could also contribute to a strong need to wake.


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