Toddler Night Terrors

image001Night terrors are mysterious, unexplainable disturbances that take place when your child is in a deep but dreamless sleep. You will know he is experiencing them if he suddenly begins to whimper, cry, flail or bolt out of his bed. There may be a chance that his eyes will be open and he will look awake, but during this state, he is actually still unconscious and unaware of what is going on around him.

These toddler night terrors are not very common and only occur in about 3-6% of all children. Although some may also have them in as early as 18 months after birth, most of them start experiencing these disturbances at around 4 or 5 years old.

Is It Night Terrors or Nightmares?

Although it may seem like “night terrors” is just another term for nightmares, the two are actually two different things. Nightmares occur during the rapid eye movement or REM phase of sleep, which is also when dreams take place. If your child has a nightmare, chances are he will remember what exactly it was about and why it scared him. Of course, until he learns to talk, he will not be able to communicate what exactly he is afraid of.

Night terrors, on the other hand, happen outside of REM sleep. Your child may experience these when he transitions through his sleep phases, and they may last for as long as several minutes. Because non-REM sleep is the deep stage of sleep, your child will be unaware of what is going on and will not recall any images or sensations the following morning.

What Are the Causes and Symptoms of Night Terrors in Toddlers?

1. Causes

Your child’s night terrors may be caused by a number and combination of different factors, which include:

  • fever
  • stressful life events
  • lack of adequate sleep
  • anesthesia administered for a recent surgery
  • any medicines that may have an effect on the brain and central nervous system

2. Symptoms

Night terrors are most common in children of the preschool age. You will observe that they usually occur during the deepest part of your child’s sleep, normally sometime near the beginning and early on in the night. You can tell that your child is going through an episode if he exhibits one or any combination of the following symptoms:

  • uncontrollable crying
  • thrashing, screaming or kicking
  • a dazed or glassy-eyed expression
  • struggling and refusing to be held
  • shaking, sweating and quick breathing
  • failure to recognize you or any familiar face

Long episodes of night terror can persist for up to 45 minutes, although most of them do not last nearly as long. It is also likely that your child will fall right back into a peaceful sleep and will not remember anything the morning after.

How to Deal With Toddler Night Terrors

Unfortunately, there is no proven method right now for minimizing or getting rid of night terrors. Because your child will not be aware of your presence and may have a tendency to thrash about, any efforts you put into comforting your child will most likely be wasted. The best thing to do whenever he experiences night terrors is to make sure he is safe and will not be exposed to any harm. It is also advisable to inform your family or anyone else who might be caring for your child that his episodes are normal and are not a cause for alarm.

Additionally, the following precautions may also help you ensure that your child remains unharmed throughout his episodes:

  • Remove any objects or sounds that may disturb his sleep.
  • Dim the lights in his room and speak to him in soft, soothing tones.
  • Regulate his sleeping cycle, so he sleeps and wakes up at the same time every day.

Whatever you do, do not try to shake him awake or restrain him, as this will only complicate things and cause him to behave more wildly. If you notice that even his daily activities are being affected by his troubles at night, you can try administering tricyclic antidepressants as temporary medication with the approval of his doctor.

Watch this video and learn some tips from a professional on how to handle toddler night terrors:

How to Prevent Toddler Night Terrors

What You Can Do

How to Do It

Make sure your toddler’s getting enough sleep

Adequate rest is important for any growing child, as going to bed overtired can cause an uncomfortable and fitful sleep. Try allowing him more time to nap, making his bedtime a little earlier, or waking him up at a later time in the morning.

Set a calming environment

Experiencing a lot of stressful or stimulating things before bedtime can also cause a fitful sleep. Allow your child some time to perform calming rituals, which may include things like a bath, a story, a song, and cuddling.

Rouse your baby gently

You might want to try gently waking your child after about an hour or two of sleeping. This is usually when an episode of night terrors begins, so waking him up before it can take place may work to alter his cycle enough to prevent more episodes from occurring.

Make your child awaken for several minutes a routine

Take note of the time that your child usually experiences his night terror episodes every night. Awaken him approximately 15 minutes from then and keep him up and about for 5 minutes. This would be a good time to let him go to the bathroom and urinate. Continue this for about a week to see if it improves his sleeping habits.

Important notes: when to seek medical help

Most children stop experiencing night terrors on their own. However, if you notice that your child suffers from episodes every night, or even several times in one night, it is advisable that you talk to his doctor immediately. He will be able to check whether something else, like large tonsils that can cause breathing problems, might be triggering the night terrors. He can also refer you to a specialist if your child’s disorder is severe.