Night Terrors: How To Help Your Baby Or Toddler

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Does your child suffer from night terrors? They aren’t alone. Up to six percent of young children experience them. We’ll give you the information you need to know to help your child navigate their night terrors.

What Are Night Terrors?

Here’s the deal with night terrors—they aren’t “just a bad dream.” A night terror is a specific experience that happens when your body is transitioning between stages three and four of sleep. This is where your body leaves a deep sleep and enters REM sleep, when the brain is most stimulated. A complete sleep cycle lasts 90–110 minutes and night terrors generally happen around the 90-minute mark.

Night terrors are frequent in children 3–12 years old but can happen at any age, even in young babies. The usual onset for night terrors is around 3.5 years old. Night terrors may initially be confused for nightmares, but there are some real differences between the two.

When a child is having a night terror, they’ll be difficult to wake. They may scream, cry, and experience intense fear. Afterward, they likely won’t remember much about their ordeal.

In addition, children experiencing night terrors might have an increased heart and breathing rate. They may also perspire. When your child is experiencing a night terror, they may sit up in bed and appear awake and alert. Though their eyes could be open, they won’t engage with you and might not acknowledge your presence.

Night terrors are usually brief and last one or two minutes. However, longer night terrors do happen, and they can last as long as 30 minutes.

There is some evidence that night terrors may be hereditary. Therefore, if you have a history of night terrors, your child is more likely to have them as well.

What Causes Night Terrors?

Rest assured that some people are just prone to night terrors. If your child is experiencing them, that doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong. If your child is predisposed to them, you might find some scenarios will trigger a night terror. These include the following:

baby sleeping
  • Stressors: A new nursery, sibling, routine, or home can cause your child stress. Children are still working through how to process emotion and stress, and this may manifest in disrupted sleep. If stress is behind your child’s night terrors, do what you can to calm their fears and anticipate that it will get better with time.
  • Illness: If your child is under the weather, especially if they’re running a temperature, they may be more likely to experience a night terror.
  • Anesthesia: If your child has had a recent medical procedure that’s involved anesthesia, night terrors may follow. As your child’s body works the medication out of their system and their sleep patterns return to normal, the night terrors should stop.
  • Exhaustion: Sleep deprivation can play a big part in encouraging night terrors. Try to get your toddler on a good sleep schedule. Growth spurts, teething, and time changes can all impact your child’s regular sleeping routine.
  • Medications: Certain medications may increase the frequency or likelihood of night terrors. These medications usually involve the central nervous system. If you have any questions or concerns about medication your child is on, talk with your pediatrician.

How To Handle Night Terrors

Night terrors are incredibly disruptive to your family’s sleep schedule. Not only is your child experiencing interrupted sleep, you and other household members likely are as well. Insufficient sleep can lead to other health concerns and make night terrors worse.

If you feel your child’s night terrors are significant enough that they’re causing your child harm, talk with your doctor. They may be able to run some tests and offer you a medical plan of action.

In the meantime, you can try to lessen the impact of night terrors on your child by trying the following home remedies.

Nightly Routines

A strong bedtime routine can do wonders. With the busy life you likely lead, it can be difficult to keep bedtime routines in place. If you’ve slipped out of your routine, go ahead and reimplement it. A soothing bath, a bedtime story, and being tucked in can help trigger better sleep for your child’s growing brain.

Nighttime routines can be great for getting into quality sleep. Morning and daytime routines can be just as important. They can help remove any insecurities and stressors your child has and allow them to function optimally.

Avoid Sleep Disturbances

Make the extra effort to provide a good sleeping environment for your child. Children generally go to sleep before adults. Regular household chores, like emptying and loading the dishwasher, vacuuming, and taking out the trash may interrupt your child’s sleep.

For optimal sleep conditions, consider using a white noise maker to help cover regular household noises. Your child should be sleeping in a dark room, and a cooler room temperature may result in better sleep.

Safety-Proof Your Child’s Sleeping Space

Even when providing your child with the optimal sleep environment, they may continue to experience night terrors. Children might thrash during night terrors. Though they may seem alert while having night terrors, they are unaware of their actions.

The result is that they’re quite vulnerable during their night terrors. Do your best to ensure they can’t fall off the bed or become hurt while experiencing one. Bed rails can help with this.

sleeping toddler

Avoiding Night Terrors Altogether

It would be great if you could prevent night terrors entirely. The truth is, you can’t. But there are a few things you may be able to try to lessen their frequency or even intercept them before they happen.

You don’t need fancy equipment for any of these approaches. What you will need is a little time and some dedication. You may find that a little bit of prep work will give your family a break from night terrors.

First, you’ll want to start charting your child’s night terrors. Keep a log of what foods have been eaten and what the daily schedule was like. What time did your child wake and what time did they go to bed? If you notice any consistent patterns, try small adjustments to see if it makes a difference.

When it comes to the night terrors themselves, keep track of how long your child is asleep before they tend to happen. If there’s a consistent schedule, you can try waking them 15 minutes before they usually happen. Get your child out of bed and awake for five full minutes. Consider a potty break.

After the time is up, help your child back to sleep. This can help interrupt the difficult transition between those final stages of REM sleep. Of course, this isn’t a long-term solution.

Keep to this schedule for a week or so and then try to ease back into not interrupting your child’s sleep. You may find you’re able to circumvent night terrors this way.

If the night terrors abate for a short period of time and then return, you can try implementing this routine again. Put it back in place for a day or two and see if that resets your child’s sleep patterns.

Night Terrors And Your Child

Unfortunately, there isn’t a sure-fire way to prevent your child from experiencing night terrors. What you can do is look for triggers that lead to your child’s night terrors and try to avoid them.

The good news is that most children outgrow their night terrors by the time they reach adolescence. While night terrors may be a very real disturbance for your family now, they won’t last forever.

Howard is a co-founder of Smart Parent Advice. When he isn't spending time with his wife, Kristin, or his two children, he can often be found running around on the tennis court.