Toddler Night Terrors: A Parent’s Guide

It’s still early in the evening, by parental standards. You’re about to settle down for the night when, all of a sudden, your toddler screams. You run to his bedroom. But you only find him sitting up, crying, still asleep. What has happened? You suspect a nightmare. Except this is different. Because he isn’t really awake.

That is a classic example of a night terror in toddlers. They are frightening for you as a parent. Your child, however, will have no memory of the episode. What causes night terrors, and how can you deal with them?

What is a Night Terror?

A night terror is not a nightmare. However, it may look like one to you. But don’t pass it off as a nightmare too soon.

Like nightmares, night terrors are a form of sleep disruption. But unlike nightmares, a child will not remember the night terror. Night terrors typically happen during the first ninety minutes of sleep, in deeper sleep stages. Nightmares, however, usually occur during stages of lighter sleep. A night terror, in deep sleep, often has no imagery associated with the episode, as compared to nightmares with vivid images. Since the night terror happens in deep sleep, your child usually won’t wake.

While this can be alarming to parents, it usually doesn’t represent an underlying, serious medical issue. Night terrors affect children aged four to twelve, and affect boys slightly more than girls. Furthermore, if you or another family member has sleep issues (like night terrors or sleepwalking), then your child is more likely to experience these episodes.

Night terrors are associated with certain symptoms. Those symptoms include sitting upright in bed, crying in distress, rapid breathing and/or heartbeat, sweating, and thrashing. As such, your child may also appear distressed, and act scared.

Fortunately, most night terrors are short lived. The typical episode will last from two to three minutes. Occasionally they can last for up to thirty minutes.

What causes Night Terrors?

Night terrors usually occur during the transition from rapid eye movement (REM) sleep to deep sleep. Medical experts believe that night terrors subside as the central nervous system matures. As this happens, transitions between deep and REM sleep become smoother and night terrors begin to subside.

But there are other factors that could induce night terrors. Some of these include medications, a recent fever or illness, or anesthesia from surgery. Since all of these factors can affect the central nervous system, they could disrupt sleep patterns in your child. Even if he was a good sleeper up until this point in time.

Likewise, stress can cause night terrors. Have you had a recent move? Is your toddler sleeping in a new bed? Even an overnight visit to a grandparents’ home or a night at a hotel can cause night terrors. Disruption in typical sleep patterns can be a primary cause of night terrors.

Sleep deprivation is another factor. Long days with fewer naps can cause night terrors. Has your child recently stopped his daytime naps? If so, you’ve probably noticed how tired he is by the end of the day. Night terrors often appear when a child’s sleep patterns shift. Keep this in mind as his sleep schedule changes.

What to do when a Night Terror Strikes

As a parent, that feeling of helplessness is the worst. Night terrors can heighten that feeling because, as a parent, there is little to do. Since your child doesn’t know they are having the night terror, they won’t even know you are there. Exacerbating the situation is that waking your child could make the experience worse. Waking a child during a night terror could lead to disorientation. Not only will it be shocking, but it can prolong the time it takes for him to fall back to sleep.

Because night terrors are so short lived, the best advice is to wait them out. Go to your child and sit with him. But don’t wake him. Instead, make sure he is safe. Remove any objects from the bed area that could hurt him if he’s thrashing about. Make sure he won’t fall out of the bed.

Stay with your child until the episode passes. Unlike nightmares which could lead to a restless night, with night terrors your child should calm himself and return to sleep in a matter of minutes. As a parent it’s alarming to watch. But stay the course, make sure he’s safe, and sit with him until he’s calmed down.

Preventing Night Terrors

There are some steps you can take to prevent night terrors. Compared to other sleep conditions, preventing night terrors can be a simple process. Typically it will involve maintaining positive bedtime routines.

So, stick to your bedtime routines. From bath time to bedtime stories, those routines will lessen stress and help him drift off to sleep in a relaxed mindset. Make sure he gets plenty of rest. It’s not easy with busy lifestyles and the increased pressures placed on kids at a young age, even in preschool. But it will go a long way in reducing the chances of night terrors happening.

Along those lines, try and keep him from becoming overtired. On those long, fun weekends, take plenty of rest breaks. While he may not be napping any longer, down time always helps to recharge and refresh. Since an exhausted mind is harder to settle down, incorporating these breaks will go a long way in helping him to relax at bedtime.

But if night terrors have been happening, note the time. If they occur around the same time every night, then try waking him fifteen minutes before the episode typically occurs. Use it as a chance to go to the bathroom. Then help him settle in to sleep again. Usually this method works in breaking the cycle of night terrors.

Since most night terrors end on their own, there is usually no need for medical intervention. But if they continue, ask your pediatrician for advice. However, this is not necessary in the vast majority of children with night terrors.