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Night Terrors in Toddlers

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD
Updated
Learn how to manage your toddler's night terrors.

Is your toddler frequently showing intense signs of fear during their sleep? Are you growing concerned it’s more than regular nightmares?

Many parents have been woken in the night to comfort a disturbed child suffering from their first nightmare, but night terrors bring a whole new level of fear to this already stressful situation.

We’ve studied the most recent research on the topic and have written this article to help you understand and manage night terrors in toddlers — so you can ease your worries and prevent future attacks.


What Are Toddler Night Terrors?

Up to 6% of children are plagued with night terrors, a type of sleep disturbance characterized by intense fear, crying, or panic in a child’s sleep.

This disorder is usually seen around the age of 3, but it can occur later. Children usually outgrow it by the age of 13 (1).

It’s important to recognize the symptoms of night terrors to implement a successful control plan and reduce risks. A child experiencing night terrors may be more tired and cranky, which leads to additional behavioral problems.

Our brain transitions through two different kinds of sleep at night, each with a set of specific stages. A night terror is a kind of turbulence a child experiences when reaching the final stage of sleep before entering their REM (rapid eye movement) cycle (2).

Nightmares Versus Night Terrors

On the surface, nightmares and night terrors may seem very similar and can stump parents for months before they realize how serious the problem is.

Both nightmares and night terrors trigger a fear reaction in your child. When having a nightmare, your child will typically wake up on their own, or be easily woken by you. A night terror is the opposite of this and may keep your child panicking for up to an hour.

Night terrors in toddlers are scary for children and parents! When my child first started having night terrors, I thought my heart would break. I immediately knew something was wrong by the way he would act while still in a deep, unbreakable sleep.

Night terrors can show a variety of signs, but these are some of the most common:

  • Intense, loud crying: This can sometimes include other verbal signs of distress like moaning, screaming, or gasping.
  • Flailing or stiff, jerky limbs: When your child gets this scared, their motor skills become less controllable, causing sudden movements as their brain tries to process the stress and escape the terror. A child may sit up or roll around, despite being deeply asleep.

Why Do Night Terrors Happen

Night terrors can happen for a large variety of reasons and causes.

Night terrors are caused by an over-stimulation of the nervous system during sleep. This can happen for several reasons, some hereditary and some stress-related.

Up to 80% of children suffering from night terrors have a family history of sleep disturbances (3).

If you eliminate stress and watch your child’s diet and environment, you can better understand what’s triggering these episodes. In the case of my child, he wasn’t getting enough sleep. We introduced a longer nap time, earlier bedtime, and better before-bed routines to help reduce the number of episodes.

These are some other reasons your child may be experiencing night terrors:

  • New medications: Taking a new medication may trigger night terrors.
  • Recurring stress: Starting school, experiencing bullying, increased fighting in the household, or other forms of stress from changes are potential causes.
  • Change of location: Staying in a different place like a motel or a friend’s house could also trigger a night terror.

How To Control Night Terrors

There’s no specific treatment for night terrors, which can be frustrating. However, there are still steps you can take to help control or reduce the episodes.

1. Don’t Wake Your Child Up

Forcing your child to wake up can leave them confused and unable to return to sleep. When your child is having a night terror, they’re in a deep sleep, making it harder to wake them.

The key is to let them stay asleep. The night terror episode will usually be over within a few minutes.

It can be hard to leave them in this state, but keep in mind they won’t remember when they wake up in the morning. Let them stay asleep, remain with them, and the moment will pass.

2. Make Their Lives Peaceful

After analyzing potential causes of your child’s night terrors, make sure you eliminate or reduce stress sources in their lives. This may require a little investigative work.

Talk with your child in a light-hearted, upbeat tone, and see if they open up about anything bothering them.

3. Track Their Episodes

Make a log of when episodes occur and how long they last, and try to discover a pattern. If you do, try to wake your child a few minutes beforehand and keep them awake for a short period.

Make sure you don’t overstimulate your child, or they won’t be able to return to sleep (4).

4. Keep Their Bedroom Tidy

If you aren’t using a crib anymore, make sure there’s nothing harmful near your child’s bed in case they fall onto the floor during an episode.

5. Document Their Sleep

Lack of sleep or insomnia is one of the leading causes of night terrors, so keep a diary of when and for how long your child sleeps.

It’s also a good idea to document how rested they seem after naps or in the morning to get an idea of how much quality sleep they are getting.

6. Stick to a Routine

Create a positive bedtime routine to increase familiarity and trust with your child concerning bedtime. The benefits extend past controlling night terrors, and it’s a great bonding experience between you and your child.

7. Support Yourself

It can be beyond painful to watch our children suffer from such intense terror in a sleep they can’t escape. It’s natural to feel depressed, helpless, or unable to sleep yourself if your child has these episodes.

Maintaining your self-care is just as important as comforting your child and controlling their sleep terrors.


Will the Nightmare Ever End?

Rest assured, night terrors don’t typically last very long. Your child’s brain will figure out how to smoothly transition from one stage of sleep to the other without the terror — usually within a few weeks.

With a few tricks like tracking their sleep and reducing everyday stressors, you can help support them through this time and secure your bond.

Headshot of Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD

Medically Reviewed by

Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD

Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett is a veteran board-certified pediatrician with three decades of experience, including 19 years of direct patient clinical care. She currently serves as a medical consultant, where she works with multiple projects and clients in the area of pediatrics, with an emphasis on children and adolescents with special needs.