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Night Terrors in Toddlers

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Pierrette Mimi Poinsett, MD
Learn how to manage night terrors in toddlers.

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.

Managing night terrors and understanding what your toddler is going through can help ease your worries and prevent a future attack.

What Are Toddler Night Terrors?

Up to 6 percent 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, and usually is outgrown by the age of 13 (1).

Recognizing the symptoms of night terrors is important in implementing a successful control plan and reducing risks. A child experiencing night terrors may be more tired and cranky, which leads to additional behavioral problems.

When we sleep, there are two different kinds that our brain transitions through, 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 realizing how deep the problem really is for their child.

Both nightmares and night terrors trigger a reaction of fear from your child. In 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, keeping your baby stuck in this panic for up to an hour at a time.

It’s scary for you both! When my child first started having night terrors, I thought my heart would absolutely break. I knew something was wrong immediately just by the way he would act while still in a deep, unbreakable sleep.

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

  • 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 get out of the terror. Sometimes 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.

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

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

Eliminating stress and watching their diet and environment can help you understand what’s triggering these episodes. In the case of my child, he wasn’t getting enough sleep. Introducing a longer nap time, earlier bedtime, and better before-bed routines help reduce the number of episodes.

Other reasons your child may be experiencing night terrors could be:

  • 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 as a result of changes are a potential cause.
  • 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 — and that 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 awake can leave them confused and unable to return to sleep. Additionally, when your child is having a night terror, they’re in a deep sleep, which makes 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’re eliminating or reducing sources of stress in their lives. This may require a little investigative work on your part.

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

3. Track Their Episodes

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

Make sure you don’t overstimulate them or else they won’t be able to return to sleep (4).

4. Keep Their Bedroom Tidy

Toys laying around your child’s bed could be a danger if they can fall from the mattress. If you aren’t using a crib anymore, make sure there’s nothing harmful in the way if your child rolls out 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 your child sleeps and for how long they do.

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

6. Stick to a Routine

Creating a positive bedtime routine increases familiarity and trust with your child in relation to bedtime. The benefits extend past just controlling night terrors, and it’s a great bonding experience between you and your child, too.

7. Support Yourself

As a mom, it can be beyond painful to watch our child 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 is having these episodes.

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

Does The Nightmare End?

Rest assured night terrors don’t typically last very long. A few weeks at most, and your child’s brain will figure out how to smoothly transition from one stage of sleep to the other without the terror.

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.