If your child has a night terror it can be pretty alarming. At first you might think it’s toddler nightmares but then their cries can be so loud that they sound truly terrified. They might sit up or thrash their arms and legs around.
They may open their eyes but not seem to know you are there. And whatever you do you can’t seem to soothe them. And then, as suddenly as the night terror began, it’s over. And your toddler falls back to sleep.
As scary as they are to watch, night terrors are unlikely to do your toddler any harm. In fact they won’t even remember them happening the next morning. But they do disturb their sleep – not to mention yours.
If your toddler has night terrors there are lots of things you can do to try to prevent another from happening. We have listed 7 ways to deal with night terrors in toddlers below. But first it can help to understand what they are and why they happen.
What are night terrors?
When we sleep we transition through several different stages of sleep. We move from deep sleep to periods of REM (rapid eye movement) when our sleep is shallower and our brains are more active. Dreams often occur during this lighter REM sleep.
Night terrors happen during the transition from one sleep stage to another. They are thought to be an interruption to the central nervous system and create a reaction of fear during this transition.
Although they might be crying out, your child is not awake during this time. And this is why they don’t remember their night terror the next morning.
Who gets night terrors?
Night terrors are quite rare, affecting only 3-6% of children. They occur most often between the ages of 4 and 12 but can happen from as young as 18 months. They are related to sleepwalking.
If your child has night terrors you might find that they are more likely to occur if your child is:
- Going through a big life change, such as the arrival of a new sibling or moving house
- Has a high fever
- Is awoken suddenly from a deep sleep by something like a sudden noise
What to do if your child has a night terror
The golden rule is not to wake your child if they are having a night terror. If you do they will be confused and disorientated and may well have trouble going back to sleep.
It’s better just to sit with them during their night terror and wait for it to pass. If they’re thrashing about, then you can make sure they cannot hurt themselves by hitting the wall or sides of their cot or bed.
7 ways to deal with night terrors in toddlers
While there is no treatment for night terrors there are several things you can do to decrease the chance of another one happening, so that your toddler – and you – get a better night’s sleep.
Check their daytime sleeps
See if your toddler is getting enough rest and naps in the day and is not overtired when it comes to bedtime.
Overtiredness can make night terrors more likely to happen.
Give them plenty of outdoor time
Fresh air and exercise will help your child get a better sleep. Make sure they have lots of opportunities to run about, in the fresh air if possible, during the daytime.
Avoid any running around or exercise during the last 2-3 hours before bedtime and use this for quiet and calm activities instead.
Calming bedtime routines
Have a calm and relaxing bedtime routine so that your child gets plenty of time to unwind.
This might include quieter activities towards the end of the day, leading to a warm bath and a bedtime story.
Create a peaceful sleeping environment
Check that your child’s room is not too hot or cold, that it is calm and peaceful – not cluttered with toys or near any source of noise and make sure it’s dark. If your child needs a night light to sleep then choose one with a soft light.
Practice ‘prompted awakenings’
If you notice a pattern where your child has a night terror around the same time each night, then you could try a method called ‘prompted awakenings’.
This involves waking them gently 15 minutes before the night terrors usually strike, for seven nights in a row. After waking them settle them back to sleep. This can prevent the night terrors from happening at their usual time. Often this method is enough to break the cycle of night terrors.
Talk to your child
Your child will not remember having a night terror the next morning so talking about the night terror itself might start making them anxious.
However it is worth talking to them about what they’re feeling and if anything is worrying them. Watch their behaviour closely to see if you can spot anything that might be causing them anxiety so that you can address it.
If in doubt seek out medical advice
If your child has frequent night terrors, or if they keep happening night after night, it is always worth taking them to your G.P.
There could be something treatable that is causing these night terrors, for example, if your child has very large tonsils this might cause breathing problems at night, which could trigger night terrors.
Sleep apnea might also interrupt breathing at night and cause night terrors.
By treating the cause you may be able to stop night terrors from occurring.
The good news is that even though they can be alarming to watch, night terrors are usually harmless to your child and they should grow out of them on their own.