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How To Manage Your Child's Nightmares

How you can help ease your toddler's night terrors


Maybe your little one isn’t waking up in the middle of the night for feedings at this stage, but you may wish to go back to that stage if you are currently dealing with those awful night terrors. It’s hard to watch your little one when they are having a night terror episode, but night terrors cause no harm, and with a few small adjustments, you may be able to help your child be free of them for good.

What are night terrors? 

When your toddler wakes up in the middle of the night, screaming inconsolably and panicking, they are likely experiencing night terrors. Night terrors are different from nightmares, and they are relatively common.  Up to six percent of children deal night terrors at some point.  As a parent, seeing your child experience a night terror can be pretty upsetting, but be reassured, night terrors don’t cause any long-term psychological harm and children do grow out of them.

Telling the difference between a night terror and nightmare

If your child is experiencing a night terror, you may see them thrash around, talk nonsense, hit or throw things while they are asleep.  Sometimes children who experience night terrors will also wet the bed.  Your little one may seem scared and confused, and while you may see your child open their eyes, they won’t be awake.  They probably won’t recognize you as you try to comfort them. Since they aren’t really awake, it’s best not to force them to wake while they are having a night terror.

What is the cause of night terrors?

When we are asleep we go through several phases of sleep- light, deep and REM (rapid eye movement). Night terrors occur when your toddler partially wakes up during the deep sleep phase, which is fairly early on in the night.  In the moment, night terrors may seem to last way too long, but in reality they typically last about 15 minutes.

Is a night terror just a bad nightmare?

The big difference between a nightmare and a night terror, is that nightmares happen during REM sleep.  REM sleep is when you’re dreaming.  Kids can often remember a nightmare since they can recall what they are dreaming about. On the other hand, night terrors happen during deep, dreamless phase of sleep and there is no memory of what happened the next day.

What causes night terrors? 

If you have a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking, it’s more common for your child to experience night terrors. Triggers for night terrors could be anything that affects sleep, such as different types of medication, being overly tired, or a cold/fever.  If your child is woken unexpectedly for anything like anxiety, an unexpected noise, or the need to use the restroom, these may be triggers as well.

What age will night terrors occur in? 

Children between the ages of three and eight years old are most likely to experience night terrors.

How can you help? 

When you see your child having a night terror, you will want more then anything to wake them up and comfort them, but the best thing to do is to wait until they calm down on their own. Waking them up can make them feel more scared and confused.  When the night terror has ended, if you feel you need to wake your little one- you can gently wake them by taking them to the restroom or change their diaper so they wake up “all the way”. Your child won't remember anything about the night terror the next day, but it may be worth talking to them in order to find out if anything is bothering them. 

If you notice the night terrors are happening at the same time every night, you can attempt to break the cycle by waking your child just before the night terrors typically begin. Do this every night for at least a week. 

Create a “solid” bed time routine and be consistent with bed time. 

Do we need outside help?

If your child is experiencing night terrors every night, you should ask your doctor to see if their may be physical causes, such as large tonsils affecting their breathing and disrupting their sleep. You also may need referred to a specialist, but most of the time this is a phase that will pass with time.  

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