A good night's sleep for a child typically means the same for a parent. But night terrors can make middle-of-the-night wakings more frequent and can leave parents feeling helpless.
A new device wants to fend off night terrors by rousing a child into a lighter sleep stage. The Lully Sleep Guardian is a Bluetooth-enabled pod that pairs with an iPhone app. To prevent a child from entering an "unhealthy state of sleep," when night terrors typically occur, the pod uses gentle, timed vibrations.
The pod is double the surface area and about the same width as a hockey puck and is meant to be placed under the mattress, near the child's torso. A companion app will notify parents to turn on the device before 11 p.m. every night, unless they choose to go to bed later.
Lully co-founder and physician Andy Rink understands first-hand how disruptive night terrors can be to a family's quality of life. Growing up, his twin sister would get them frequently.
"Every night at a similar time, my sister would start screaming, crying and looking like what would be the most severe nightmare you've seen," Rink says. "But it couldn't be stopped."
Sleep terrors, or more colloquially, "night terrors," are a minor sleep disorder that most kids will grow out of. They affect 3-4 percent of children ages 2-12, with cases ranging from mild to severe.
Not to be confused with the common nightmare, night terrors are a more dramatic sleep disruption in which the child may talk or thrash around, but will not recall the incident in the morning. The terrors, which can last for up to half an hour, occur in deep non-REM sleep, usually a couple hours after a child falls asleep during a transition into a lighter REM sleep.
"They are much more distressing to observe than they are to experience," says Dr. Judith Owens, a pediatrician who specializes in sleep disorders.
But it's advised not to wake the person going through it, she says, because "it can make them more agitated. It's best to allow it to run its course."
In severe cases, benzodiazepines like Xanax have been prescribed as a last resort, because they suppress deep sleep, Owens says. Another serious treatment option is surgery if the child has sleep apnea, a disorder that can trigger these arousals and can make night terrors worse.
More recently, Rink was reminded of how bad they really are when he stayed with relatives and saw that his nephew suffered from night terror episodes.
That's when he and co-founder engineer Varun Boriah teamed up to work on treating the disorder by developing a new consumer product.
In a 150-subject clinical study with the device conducted at Stanford University, a School of Medicine team saw an average 90-percent reduction in night terrors per week for kids with severe cases. Some children came out of the study night terror-free.
Rink says the research resulted in positive effects on sleep quality. Kids appeared less tired during the day.
Those who do not suffer from sleep disorders, he says, "have a smooth deep sleep with no interruptions. People who are prone to getting sleep problems have heavy interruptions, called micro-arousals, during deep sleep. You can't tell by looking at someone sleeping, but brain activity shows all these interruptions. That's what we mean by 'unhealthy.' "
Owens isn't sure how the new device determines when child is in deep sleep without using an EEG, but she attributes Lully's method to a technique called "scheduled awakenings."
"Scheduled awakenings work about 50 percent of the time," she says.
She doesn't see a difference in effectiveness of the vibrations versus a parent waking the child themselves.
But Rink sees broader applications for the technology, as a method to combat nightmares, sleepwalking and other similar classes of sleep disorders.
The company just wrapped up its Y Combinator seed funding after raising $2.1 million.
Lully will launch at end of this month and retail for $169.