How To Handle Toddler Night Terror

Your toddler is sleeping peacefully, and then out of the blue, she wakes, panicking, kicking, sleepwalking, mumbling, or thrashing. Obviously, this will leave you worried because you don’t know what’s happening to your child and if they’re okay. No need to worry as there’s nothing wrong with your toddler. What she’s experiencing is a night terror.

This common sleep disorder usually happens when your baby is in slow-wave sleep, which is the deepest sleep stage during the first third of the night. And during this event, a child may scream, panic, or make sudden movements. If your child is experiencing a night terror, stay calm and don’t wake her because remember she’s not fully awake during this moment and won’t until the next day. Read on to learn more about the signs, causes, and solutions to night terrors in toddlers.

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What Is A Night Terror?

A night terror is a kind of disturbance where your toddler suddenly seems very agitated while in a deep sleep state, which is hard to wake from. According to Baby Center, A child with a night terror may seem as if he’s in a panic, suddenly bolting upright in bed, screaming, crying, moaning, mumbling, and thrashing about with his eyes wide open even though he isn’t awake. He’s in a sort of twilight zone between being asleep and awake, can’t recognize your presence, and won’t respond to whatever you say or do. There’s usually no warning as terrors happen suddenly, and your child cannot be awakened or comforted.


An episode can last anywhere from several minutes to an hour – some will last 2 to 3 minutes, others 10 to 15 minutes, while others last longer. Research reveals that night terrors are weird glitches in the normally smooth transitions humans make between sleep stages every night, and when the episode ends, your child will go back to sleep and not remember the incident.

Usually, these episodes don’t happen for more than one night; they’ll sometimes happen regularly for weeks or months and then disappear. So, even though they seem scary to you, they’ll in no way harm your child. But until then, you can try some things to help reduce their occurrence.

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When Do Night Terrors Start & What Causes Them?

According to Healthline, it’s rare for infants to experience night terrors, and the crying young babies do at night isn’t connected to night terrors. However, you may start to notice night terrors when your toddler is about 18 months. They’re more common in preschoolers aged 3 to 4 years and can happen in kids until they’re 12, but usually, stop when a child becomes a teenager, and their nervous system is more developed. But what causes them?

Night terrors happen during non-rapid eye movement sleep (the state of deep sleep when someone isn’t dreaming.) Normally, non-REM sleep happens two or three hours after your toddler falls asleep. Researchers aren’t entirely sure why night terrors happen or how to avoid them, but they suspect it’s connected to overstimulating the central nervous system. But even though the actual causes are unknown, some factors may increase the likelihood of terrors happening, including:

  • If your toddler is sleep-deprived or over-exhausted.
  • Changes to schedules or routines, such as traveling or disrupting your child’s daily routine.
  • If your family has a history of sleep terrors (or sleep-related disorders such as sleepwalking).
  • Fever or illness
  • Stress
  • Breathing issues linked to sleep, such as sleep apnea.
  • Certain conditions that prevent your toddler from getting enough rest, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) or restless leg syndrome, may also provoke night terrors.
  • Very Well Family Also adds that kids who start taking a new medication, sleep in a new place, or ingest too much caffeine may experience night terrors.


How Night Terrors Differ From Nightmares

Your child will not remember if she had a night terror but will remember a nightmare. Not only will she remember her dream and sometimes speak about it, but she’ll prefer to be in your presence to feel safer. Toddlers also have night terrors in the first third of the night during non-REM sleep, while nightmares happen during REM sleep, which occurs during the last third of the night.

The easiest way to differentiate the two is to ask yourself who seems most upset about the event in the morning. If your child seems agitated in the morning, she had a nightmare. If you’re the more worried one, then she probably experienced a night terror.

What To Do If Your Child Has Night Terrors

Here’s how to deal with night terrors:

  • Try to help your toddler return to sleep – Avoid waking your child, and watch him as you try to soothe him back to sleep. Waking him only confuses and disorients him, making it harder to go to bed. Hold him to see if it helps him feel better. Also, don’t shake him or shout at him as it may upset him further.
  • Protect your toddler against injury – Your child is prone to injury during a terror, such as running into a wall, breaking a window, or running into a wall. So, make sure your child is safe during the event by removing anything in the crib that may harm her or redirecting her to the bed.
  • Make all caregivers aware of your baby’s night terrors, Especially if he has a history of them, and guide them on what to do if you’re out at night.
  • Try to prevent night terrors – Avoiding some triggers explained above may help reduce terrors. For example, make sure your baby has a consistent bedtime or let them take a nap during the day to prevent over-exhaustion.
  • Scheduled awakening– If you observe that your toddler’s night terrors occur about the same time at night, you can try scheduled awakening. This means you gently and shortly wake your toddler for 15 or 20 minutes before she experiences a night terror. Doing so repeatedly may help your child wake herself up automatically to prevent the night terror. However, this technique hasn’t been properly tested in preventing night terrors, and there’s always the chance that waking your toddler around the time of an episode may trigger one.


Sources: Baby Center, Healthline, Very Well Family


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