How To Spot Night Terrors in Babies and Toddlers

by | Jun 24, 2021 | Baby Sleep

Night terrors are very different from nightmares.

Most children experience nightmares every now and then but night terrors are pretty rare. In fact, only 3% – 6% of children experience night terrors and they usually happen between the ages of 3 and 12 years. However, night terrors have been reported in babies as young as just 18 months old.

In this post, I will explain the difference between nightmares and night terrors, how to spot the signs of a night terror, and what you can do about it.

What is the difference between a nightmare and a night terror?

Nightmares happen during REM (dream) sleep, later in the night. Your child will most likely wake from the nightmare and remember it.

Nightmares cause strong feelings of terror, fear, distress or anxiety and can be brought on by something scary your child has seen that day, or something they’re worried about.

 

Night terrors tend to occur in the early part of the night and your child will probably not have any recollection when they wake up in the morning.

During a night terror, your little one may scream and thrash around in a panicked state, their eyes will likely be open but they won’t actually be awake.

After a night terror, your little one will fall back into deep sleep and won’t remember the episode in the morning. Unlike nightmares, which your child may remember when they wake up. This is because night terrors occur when your child is in deep sleep so there are no mental images to recall.

When can night terrors start?

Although it is quite rare for infants to experience night terrors, they could start as early as 18 months old but are more common in preschool age kids, around 3-4 years old.

By the time a child’s nervous system is better developed at around the age of 12, night terrors usually stop.

What causes night terrors?

There could be a number of reasons your child is experiencing night terrors so it is important to find out the root cause. 

These could include:

1 – Overstimulation of the central nervous system (CNS) – especially in babies as they’re experiencing so many new things during the day.

2 – Family history of sleep issues such as night terrors or sleepwalking – night terrors can be inherited 

3 – Anything that increases how much deep sleep your child has – sickness, taking certain medications or being overtired

4 – Anything that makes your little one more likely to wake from deep sleep – things like being excited, anxious, stressed, having a new sleep environment, poor sleep quality, a sudden noise or needing the toilet.

How to spot the signs of a night terror

Night terrors occur in the early party of the sleep cycle, when your child moves from deep to light sleep.

Signs your child is experiencing a night terror:

  • Their eyes are open but they are technically still asleep
  • Night terrors can last anything between a couple of minutes up to 45 minutes
  • They will not wake up during or after the night terror (unlike a nightmare, which your little one will usually wake up from)
  • Your child may scream, sweat, thrash, have a racing heartbeat and rapid breathing or suddenly sit up in bed
  • They may not respond to your attempts to comfort or soothe them because they are actually still sleeping 

What to do if your child is experiencing night terrors

As difficult as it may seem, the best thing to do is nothing. Unless they are not safe, it is best just to stay calm and wait until your little one calms down. As terrifying as they may seem, night terrors aren’t actually harmful. 

If you do try to wake your little one during a night terror, this could make it worse as they might not recognise you and then they’ll become more stressed or confused.

If night terrors are occurring frequently, observe them and make a note of the times they’re happening – that way you could help to prevent them happening in future (keep reading).

What to do if your child is experiencing nightmares

Nightmares are often caused by worries or anxieties your child has. Or, they may just have seen something scary which has triggered the nightmare.

The best thing to do is have a chat with your little one to find out if there is anything they’re worried about. If their nightmares are caused by a stressful past experience, they may need counselling.

Is there anything you can do to prevent night terrors?

Yes there is! A well-rested baby or child is less likely to experience a night terror.

Here are some tips to encourage a good night’s sleep:

  • Make sure you know how much sleep they need – check out my Age Appropriate Routines
  • Create a positive, consistent bedtime routine
  • Try not to discuss the night terrors in a way that worries your little one – this may increase their anxiety.
  • If you spot a pattern to the night terrors and you can predict when they’re about to happen, try waking your little one about 15 minutes before you expect the night terror to occur. By doing this every night for a week you may be able to disrupt their sleep pattern enough to stop the night terrors from happening.

If you do try to wake your little one during a night terror, this could make it worse as they might not recognise you and then they’ll become more stressed or confused.

What support is available to help my child overcome night terrors?

Children usually grow out of night terrors but, if they’re happening frequently during the night, or they’re happening most nights it might be worth getting an expert opinion.

Chat to your GP first as there may be medical issues that can be easily treated causing the night terrors, such a large tonsils causing breathing problems which is waking your little one.

Sleep training could also help. If you can train your little one to sleep through the night and not be disturbed, night terrors are much less likely to occur. If you’d like to discuss your child’s sleep issues, get in touch with me for a free consultation.

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