Surviving the Night Terrors: A Parent’s Guide to Soothing Their Toddler’s Sleep

If you’re a parent of a toddler, you may have experienced the horror of your little one waking up screaming and crying in the middle of the night. These episodes, known as night terrors, are more common than you may think. In fact, up to 6% of children between the ages of 1 and 6 experience night terrors at some point.

So, what exactly are night terrors? Unlike nightmares, which occur during REM sleep and are often related to something the child experiences during the day, night terrors happen during non-REM sleep, usually within the first few hours of falling asleep. During a night terror, your child may sit up in bed, scream, cry, sweat, and have a rapid heart rate. They may seem scared and confused, and may not recognize you or respond to your attempts to comfort them. In some cases, they may even get out of bed and walk around, although they usually have their eyes open and are not fully awake.

Night Terrors

Night terrors can be terrifying for parents to witness, but the good news is that they are usually not harmful to your child. Most night terrors only last a few minutes, and your child will usually go back to sleep afterwards without any memory of the episode. However, if your child is having night terrors frequently, it can be disruptive to their sleep and yours.

So, why do night terrors happen? The exact cause is not fully understood, but it is thought to be related to the immaturity of a child’s developing brain. Night terrors tend to run in families, so there may also be a genetic component. Other factors that can contribute to night terrors include lack of sleep, stress, and fever.

If your child is experiencing night terrors, there are a few things you can do to help them feel more comfortable. First and foremost, it’s important to remember that your child is not conscious during a night terror, so trying to wake them up or reason with them will not work. Instead, stay calm and make sure your child is safe. You can gently guide them back to bed if they start to walk around, but do not try to hold them down or restrain them.

It’s also a good idea to establish a calming bedtime routine for your child, with a consistent bedtime and soothing activities like reading a book or singing a lullaby. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep overall, as overtiredness can contribute to night terrors. If your child is prone to night terrors, it may be helpful to wake them up a little bit earlier than usual to prevent them from falling into the deep sleep phase where night terrors tend to occur.

If your child is having frequent night terrors that are disrupting their sleep and yours, it may be worth talking to your pediatrician. In some cases, underlying medical conditions like sleep apnea or acid reflux can contribute to night terrors, so your doctor may want to do some tests or refer you to a specialist. However, in most cases, night terrors are a normal part of development that will resolve on their own as your child gets older.

There is a growing body of research suggesting a link between anxiety and night terrors in children. Studies have shown that children who experience night terrors are more likely to have underlying anxiety disorders and that reducing anxiety levels can lead to a decrease in the frequency and intensity of night terrors. Parents should be aware of this relationship and look for signs of anxiety in their child’s life, such as changes in behaviour, excessive worry, or physical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches. Addressing these underlying anxiety issues may be an important part of managing night terrors and helping their child get the restful sleep they need.

While night terrors can be scary and disruptive for both parents and children, it’s important to remember that they are usually not harmful and will not cause any long-term problems. By staying calm and establishing a soothing bedtime routine, you can help your child feel more comfortable and get a good night’s sleep. If you have any concerns about your child’s night terrors, don’t hesitate to talk to your pediatrician. With a little patience and understanding, you can help your child navigate this normal developmental phase and get the restful sleep they need to grow and thrive.

  1. Are night terrors different from nightmares?

    Yes, night terrors are different from nightmares. Nightmares occur during REM sleep and are usually related to something the child experiences during the day. Night terrors, on the other hand, occur during non-REM sleep and are not related to any specific event. Children may not remember a night terror the next morning, but they may remember a nightmare.

  2. Can parents do anything to comfort their toddler during a night terror?

    While trying to wake up or talk to the child during a night terror is not effective, parents can provide a safe and calm environment for their child. For example, parents can sit by the child’s bed and offer soothing words, or gently stroke their hair. The goal is to provide a sense of security and reassurance.

  3. Are night terrors more common in certain age groups?

    Night terrors are most common in toddlers and preschool-aged children, but they can occur in children up to age 12. They tend to occur more frequently in boys than girls.

  4. Can stress or anxiety trigger night terrors?

    Yes, stress and anxiety can contribute to night terrors in some children. Parents should look for signs of stress or anxiety in their child’s life, and work to reduce stressors where possible. For example, if a child is anxious about starting preschool, parents can help prepare them for the transition by talking about it and practicing routines.

Additional recommendations:

  • Avoid using screens before bedtime, as they can disrupt sleep patterns.
  • Encourage physical activity during the day, as this can improve sleep quality.
  • Keep a sleep diary to track the frequency and duration of night terrors, as this can help identify patterns and triggers.
  • Consider joining a support group for parents of children with night terrors, as this can provide a sense of community and shared experiences.

If you are concerned about your child’s night terrors, it may be helpful to contact one of the professionals at STG. They can help assess your child’s overall health and provide guidance on strategies for managing night terrors. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have any concerns or questions. Taking action now can help ensure your child gets the restful sleep they need for healthy development.

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