Night terrors in toddlers: What you can do

Updated Mar 14, 2022
Nightmare

For most caregivers, it won’t come as a surprise that it’s completely normal for babies and toddlers to sometimes let out a few soft (or loud!) cries or whimpers in their sleep. If you’re experiencing this for the first time with your child — especially if it’s out of character for them — it’s natural to be a bit worried or confused.

Rest assured that a little crying is common between sleep cycles and can sometimes occur due to overtiredness or discomfort related to teething, or when a baby hasn’t yet mastered sleeping on their own.

Huckleberry Tip: Baby Crying in Sleep

For more details about babies and toddlers crying in their sleep — and what you can do about it — check out the top reasons your baby is crying in their sleep.

But the type of night waking that typically begins with a very loud shout or scream is the kind that wakes even the most seasoned caregivers from a deep sleep, gets your heart racing, and is still fresh in your mind the next morning. We’re talking about night terrors in babies and toddlers.

Thankfully, night terrors are much scarier for you than they are for your child. Here's what you can do.


IN THIS ARTICLE


Some people use the terms “nightmare” and “night terror” interchangably, but it’s important to understand that nightmares and night terrors aren’t the same.

Night terrors are episodes of screaming often coupled with flailing that occur while you’re still sleeping. During a night terror, a child will also experience intense fear and may sleep walk. They're unlikely to remember the event the next morning. 

Night terrors occur while babies and toddlers are in deep (non-REM) sleep and generally happen within the first 3 - 4 hours after falling to sleep. Night terrors rarely occur during naps.

Night terror episodes usually last 5 - 10 minutes, but can be as short as a few seconds or as long 45 minutes. According to one study, night terrors (also known as sleep terrors) affect nearly 40% of children. 

Although night terrors and nightmares can share some of the same symptoms, night terrors are not simply “more intense” nightmares. In fact, night terrors and nightmares are two entirely different sleep conditions. Here are the key differences between the symptoms of nightmares and the symptoms of night terrors in toddlers:

During a night terror, your child may:

  • Sit up in bed and appear frightened

  • Scream or shout loudly

  • Get out of bed and begin sleep walking

  • Mumble

  • Be unresponsive when spoken to

  • Be inconsolable

  • Be hard to wake up

  • Stare wide-eyed but not make eye contact

  • Act aggressively

  • Kick or thrash

  • Sweat excessively

  • Breathe heavily

  • Have a racing pulse

  • Appear flushed

  • Have dilated pupils

  • Be confused if awakened

  • Have no or little memory of the event the next morning

Following a nightmare, your child is likely to:

  • Wake up fully

  • Cry out for you

  • Acknowledge your presence

  • Be responsive to physical reassurance

  • Be consoled verbally

  • Calm down within a few minutes 

  • Remember or describe the dream to you

Nightmares can be related to a child’s stage in development, anxiety, stress, or from simply not getting enough sleep. Almost every child will occasionally experience an upsetting or frightening dream. 

Nightmares are handled differently than night terrors. Here's how you might help your toddler if they're dealing with frequent nightmares:

  • Institute a regular morning wake up and bedtime

  • Use a consistent sleep routine that helps your child unwind and relax before bed

  • Offer your child a stuffed animal or soft blanket to sleep with

  • Avoid scary movies, TV shows, and stories

  • Talk to your child about their fears 

  • Discuss nightmares with your child and help them to understand that nightmares aren’t real and that they are safe

Night terrors are most common in preschool aged children around 3 - 4 years old. But toddlers as young as 18 months - 2 years old, and children as old as 7 or 8 years, can experience them as well. 

Night terrors age at a glance 

  • 18 month old night terrors - very rare

  • 2 year old night terrors - rare

  • 3 year old night terrors - common

  • 4 year old night terrors - very common

Night terrors are far less common in older children and usually resolve on their own by the time a child reaches puberty. 

Various factors can contribute to night terrors, such as:

  • Sleep deprivation

  • Chronic overtiredness

  • Anxiety or stress

  • Sleep schedule disruptions, such as while traveling

  • Sleeping in a new environment

  • Frequent sleep interruptions 

  • Fever or illness

  • Caffeine 

  • Sleep apnea

Unfortunately, there's no one-size-fits-all treatment for night terrors. However, there are many ways to help reduce night terrors in toddlers.

To reduce night terrors, it can be helpful to:

  • Address areas of stress in your child’s life. Consider new living situations, daycare changes, pets that have passed, a new baby, etc.

  • Avoid screen time at least an hour before bed. This ensures brain-stimulating blue light isn't the last thing they take in before going to sleep.

  • Implement a consistent and relaxing bedtime routine. This may include a bath, pajamas, and story time — provided the story isn't scary!

  • Make sure your child gets enough sleep.

  • Avoid your child becoming overtired. Having a nap during the day can help ensure toddlers avoid overtiredness at bedtime.

  • Have an age-appropriate bedtime.

  • Look for patterns. Are there certain foods or activities that seem to occur frequently before a night terror takes place?

  • Avoid caffeine. 

  • Ensure your child feels safe in their sleep environment. This may be especially relevant if they've recently transitioned to a toddler bed.

Although night terrors are very scary for us as caregivers, they're generally not harmful. Following the prevention tips above can help reduce the occurrence of night terrors. However, talk to your child’s pediatrician or seek out a specialist if you notice any of the following:

  • Your child jerks, drools, or is stiff while experiencing a night terror

  • Your child is experiencing night terrors on a regular basis (e.g., two or more times per week)

  • Your child’s night terrors last longer than 30 minutes

  • Your child does something dangerous while experiencing a night terror or you have concerns about your child’s safety

  • You feel family stress may be a factor

  • Your child expresses daytime fears or anxiety

Although you may be panicked, it’s best not to attempt waking your child up while they’re having a night terror.

Although it’s not recommended that you physically restrain your child or attempt to console them with a hug, you should stay close by until the episode passes. 

While your child is having a night terror you can speak softly and quietly, but don’t be surprised if they mumble or don’t respond. 

If your child is sleepwalking, help direct them away from objects they may trip over or run into by putting yourself in between your child and the dangerous object(s). If your child is thrashing in their bed, consider putting pillows or blankets between them and their crib rails or headboard until they settle down (as long as they are older than 1 year).

Night terrors FAQ

Q: How can I tell if my child is having a night terror?

A:

 Night terrors occur while a child is still sleeping. During a night terror, your child is unlikely to acknowledge your presence and may continue screaming and thrashing and appear frightened.

Q: Do night terrors do psychological damage?

A:

 Here’s some good news: There’s no evidence to suggest night terrors are associated with serious emotional or psychological problems — nor have night terrors been shown to do any psychological damage.

Q: Are night terrors preventable?

A:

 Night terrors aren’t totally preventable, but caregivers can take measures to reduce the occurrence of night terrors by implementing healthy sleep hygiene practices for children. Ensuring your child gets enough sleep, has a consistent and age-appropriate bedtime, and enjoys a consistent, relaxing bedtime routine are all effective ways to minimize night terrors.

Q: Is a night terror a warning of future mental health struggles?

A:

 Night terrors are common among children and occur in healthy children. Occasional night terrors are generally not concerning — they’re a normal part of development. If night terrors are persistent or don’t resolve by the time your child reaches puberty, discuss them with your child’s healthcare provider.

Q: Can food allergies cause night terrors in children?

A:

 While there haven’t been any studies to prove food allergies can cause sleep disturbances and night terrors in children, many caregivers have reported a connection. Anecdotal evidence from concerned parents has linked sensitivities to food coloring and additives, particularly Red Dye #40 and MSG, to night terrors.

Q: Are night terrors hereditary?

A:

 There does seem to be a strong genetic influence on sleep disturbances, including sleepwalking and night terrors. According to a 2008 study published in Pediatrics, more than 40% of sleep terror cases can likely be attributed to genetics.

Note: The content on this site is for informational purposes only and should not replace medical advice from your doctor, pediatrician, or medical professional. If you have questions or concerns, you should contact a medical professional.