Sleep paralysis in children is frightening for the child and the parent. Children experiencing sleep paralysis wake from their dreams and are unable to move. They are conscious but still involved in their dream.
Dreaming happens during REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. This is the light sleep where the mind is most active. During this state the muscles are deeply relaxed, and apart from the occasional ‘twitch’ the body is still and motionless. The eyes flicker underneath the eyelids but the rest of the body is ‘paralysed’. This immobility is considered to be nature’s way of protecting us from harm by ‘acting out’ our dreams.
Although the sufferer is experiencing hallucinations of terror they are physically in no harm. Common hallucinations include believing that there is someone in the room, suffocation and a feeling of impending death.
During sleep paralysis, the child wakes but will be unable to cry out for help. The body is frozen and they are unable to fully awaken. They may look shocked, or moan and appear to be locked in their dream. This may last for a few minutes. They may be able to remember parts of their nightmare, but younger children will be less able to communicate their fears.
The paralysis can usually be broken by continued eye movement or a gentle touch to help the child to wake up. Most children grow out of sleep paralysis by adolescence.
Sleep paralysis usually occurs during the onset of sleep or before waking. Although rare, it can occur in older children and grown ups, and may be a symptom of narcolepsy.
Anxiety and Sleep
Research has found a connection between sleep paralysis and daytime panic attacks. Panic attacks are the result of anxiety and symptoms include shortness of breath, sweating, increased heartbeat and a feeling of fear. Panic attacks may be the result of a stressful or traumatic event or may have no identifiable cause. Treatment may include short term drug therapy, but more often long term benefits are achieved through counselling and learning relaxation techniques to help control the symptoms.
Peaceful Night’s Sleep
As with all sleep problems, parents should ensure their children are getting adequate sleep. The child should be gently woken and reassured that they are safe. Experts suggest that parents should concentrate on any anxieties in the child’s conscious mind rather than trying to interpret any dreams or nightmares. Dream interpretation is subjective and much content is universal and hard to relate or explain. Recurring nightmares may suggest connections with daytime worries and concerns. By trying to encourage and help the child to express and solve problems in the ‘conscious’ mind, they may improve their ability to have a peaceful night.
Cognitive behavioural therapy and breathing and relaxation techniques help adults cope with anxiety and panic attacks. They may also have some benefit in preventing sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis is frightening to the sufferer and although it causes no physical harm, adults may find the event traumatic enough that the rest of their sleep is disrupted. Sleep debt is to be avoided, and by learning how to relax and go back to sleep, sufferers may be encouraged to find ways to cope with the disruption and improve the quality of their sleep.