Many toddlers experience night terrors. They are different than nightmares and do not have a lasting effect. Night terror triggers include tiredness, a fever, needing to pee, and sudden noise.
A night terror is a common sleep disorder that happens while a child is in slow-wave sleep. This is the stage of deepest sleep during the first third of the night.
During a night terror, a child may panic, scream, or make sudden movements. If this happens, stay calm, and do not wake them. A toddler is not fully awake during a night terror, and they are unlikely to remember it the next day.
If night terrors often occur, ensure that the toddler has a good bedtime routine and see whether things improve. In most cases, toddlers grow out of them.
For children, night terrors present in a number of ways:
- screaming or shouting unintelligible words
- flailing or kicking in bed
- sitting up in bed
- making sudden movements
- jumping out of bed
- seeming panicked, distraught, or afraid
- sweating or breathing heavily
It is difficult to wake a toddler if they have a night terror. They are unlikely to respond if a person tries to comfort or speak to them. They may even push someone away if they try to help.
Although a child may have their eyes open during a night terror, they are not fully awake. If they wake up, they are likely to be confused and may not know what has happened.
Most toddlers will not wake up during a night terror. After an episode, they will usually go into a deep sleep, and they probably will not remember it the next morning.
Frequent night terrors can also disrupt sleep, so a toddler may seem more tired than usual the next day.
Night terrors do not always have an apparent cause, but they are more common if other people in the family sleepwalk or have night terrors.
Night terrors are more likely if a toddler wakes from a deep sleep. Other common triggers can include:
- getting less deep sleep
- some medications
- needing to pee
- a sudden noise
- periods of stress or change
Occasional night terrors are a normal part of a child’s development and are most common between the ages of 3 and 7. Toddlers almost always grow out of having them.
If a child has a night terror, remain calm and stay with them until it passes. Do not try to wake them up, as this can cause more distress and confusion. However, it is fine to hold or soothe them if it seems to help. It is also crucial to protect them against injury, particularly if they are out of bed.
Night terrors do not cause any long-term harm, and most children will not remember an episode the next day. It can help to ask gently if anything is worrying them, without mentioning the night terrors.
A bedtime routine and sufficient sleep can help prevent night terrors. Try to put a toddler to bed at the same time every evening. Dim the lights, read a story, and limit screen time before bed.
Night terrors can happen if a child has worries or goes through a significant change, for example, starting at a new school. Try to talk to them about future changes such as this. Reassure a worried child and encourage them to talk about how they feel and what could help.
Although both nightmares and night terrors can disturb sleep and cause distress, they are not the same. They happen during different stages of sleep.
- falling asleep
- light sleep
- deep sleep
Every person cycles through stages of REM and non-REM sleep throughout the night.
Most dreams and nightmares happen during REM sleep. A toddler may wake from a bad dream, remember what happened, and be able to explain it. Causes of nightmares include worries or scary experiences.
In contrast, night terrors happen during non-REM sleep, early in the night. When they occur, a toddler will not be fully awake and may have their eyes open or closed.
A night terror usually lasts up to 15 minutes and may occur more than once during the night. Toddlers may wake up with little memory of the episode or fall into a deep sleep again.
Night terrors do not need treatment unless they regularly disrupt sleep, last longer than 30 minutes, or cause a child to drool, jerk, or stiffen. In these cases, a pediatrician can offer help and advice.
Children rarely need medication to treat sleep problems. However, a doctor may recommend techniques to disrupt their sleep pattern for a short period.
For example, if a toddler has a night terror at the same time each night, the doctor may advise waking them 15 minutes before their next episode for 7 consecutive days. Doing this could help break the cycle of night terrors.
In some cases, frequent night terrors can have a medical cause. A child may have a full bladder, a fever, or breathing problems that wake them in the night.
Night terrors can be alarming or upsetting to watch. However, they do not have an adverse effect, and children are unlikely to remember them.
Try to resist the urge to wake or shout at a child if they have an episode, but keep them safe and soothe them if necessary.
Toddlers should grow out of night terrors as they get older. If they have persistent episodes or the night terrors affect their sleep, a pediatrician can help.