What Are Toddler Night Terrors?

Have you noticed your little one screaming intensely or crying in fear while deeply asleep at night? If yes, it may mean that your baby is experiencing a night terror. 

During a sleep terror, your child may get very agitated suddenly and could look like they are in a state of panic, could have difficulty breathing and a rapid heartbeat. It can happen for a few minutes or sometimes continue for up to an hour. It usually takes place only once a night or for weeks together, or even for months. Studies also show that a night terror happens more during the deep and non-REM sleep state during the first part of the night. 

baby sleep terror

Are Terrors and Nightmares the Same?

A night terror is different from a nightmare because the former takes place when a child is in deep sleep. When toddlers have night terrors, they remain asleep during the episode and will most likely not remember anything when they wake up. However, when they have nightmares, they may be able to talk about their dream. Therefore, a way to distinguish between a nightmare and a night terror is to see if your child is upset about the episode the next day. If they can remember the bad dream, it is a nightmare, but if they can’t, then it is a night terror.

What to Do When Your Child Has a Night Terror

If your child is experiencing a night terror, it is best not to wake them. This is because they usually do not know what is happening during this time and if you try to hold them to comfort them, it can only make them more scared. This, in turn, will worsen the situation.

Those who suffer night terrors should be handled similarly to those who sleepwalk, and they should never be awakened. Speak to them instead of physically consoling them. 

Some children might try to climb out of bed or even sleepwalk during a night terror, so you should remove objects from the floor - making sure that the room is safe. Experts suggest waiting for the night terror to pass and letting your child fall back to sleep again.

Causes of Night Terrors in Toddlers

Research has not yet proven what causes night terrors in children and hence there is no way to prevent it. However, research suggests that night terrors do not indicate that your child has a psychological problem or that they are upset. 

Night terrors usually run in families and certain situations may trigger it. Certain causes could be stress, sleep deprivation, sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), certain medications that affect the brain fever, caffeine, anxiety, or other reasons. 

As a preventative measure against night terrors, you should ensure that your toddler has a regular bedtime routine and gets enough sleep during the night.

When to Go to a Doctor

If you feel that one of the above-mentioned causes is responsible for night terrors in your child and if the episodes are happening too often, speak to your child’s doctor. A doctor can diagnose night terrors and advise you if further medical interventions are necessary. If there are other health issues, the test will include a sleep study to check for a breathing disorder or order an EEG that measures brain activity for seizures.

What You Can do to Prevent Night Terrors

As a parent, you need to take certain measures if night terrors happen to your child frequently. Try to make sure that your child gets good rest and do not let them stay up till very late. Your child should have a nighttime routine and go to bed and get up at the same time every day. 

Furthermore, it is helpful to encourage your toddler not to gaze at screens, electronic gadgets, or other noises that may disrupt their sleep, and keep items and toys out of the way if your child climbs out of bed during a night terror episode.

Another preventative precaution you could try is keeping track when your child encounters night terrors. Wake your child gently about 15 minutes before that time to interrupt his or her sleep. After about a week, your child should be able to stop having night terrors. This method of averting a sleep terror is referred to as "scheduled awakening".

Night terrors usually stop by the time a child reaches their teenage years. 

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