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Night terrors for toddlers – the more dramatic nightmare

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Very intense sleep terrors

We all have nightmares and our kids do have them too occasionally.

So far so good but what if your toddler starts experiencing episodes of screaming being absolutely terrified while still asleep?

This way more intense and more dramatic form of nightmares is called night terrors or sleep terrors.

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According to the mayo clinic about 40% of all children experience night terrors at some point.

They are most common between 4-12 years of age and have been reported as early as 18 month according to kids health.

Good news is that most children outgrow them by the time they are teenagers.

What are night terrors?

Night terrors can be defined as episode of screaming and being way more dramatic as your normal nightmare.

As a parent it is very alarming to see your toddler like that but there is usually no need to be concerned since those sleep terrors are normally not damaging in any way.

However if they become a safety risk for your child or cause a permanent lack of sleep you should consult with your doctor about treatment options.

Children mostly don’t remember what happened during the night because they where deeply asleep while it happened.

Night terrors occur mostly during the first half of the night and very rarely during normal naps. (about 2-3 hours after falling asleep transitioning from the deep REM sleep stage to the lighter REM sleep stage)

They are more common if family members have a history of sleepwalking.

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Symptoms

When a toddler experiences night terrors they usually show one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Suddenly sitting upright in their bed
  • Screaming out of nowhere while still asleep
  • Sweating
  • Heavy breathing
  • Hard to wake and confused once woken up
  • No memory of the events in the morning
  • Sleep walking
  • Staring with wide eyes (and still asleep)
  • Racing pulse
  • Flushed face
  • Kicking
  • Acting very scared

After a few minutes of experiencing these episodes your kid might just go back to sleep calmly as if nothing happened.

If they happen occasionally there is no need to worry.

toddler nightmares

When should my toddler see a doctor?

It doesn’t hurt to mention the sleep terrors at your next doctors appointment.

You should definitely consult your pediatrician when:

  • it happens more frequently
  • keeps interrupting your toddler’s sleep or the sleep of everyone else
  • Becomes a safety concern
  • Becomes an issue during the day because of being overly sleepy and having problems to function properly
  • Continue after their teen years into adulthood
  • Your toddler hurts themselves during an episode

What causes sleep terrors?

When your toddlers central nervous system is overly stimulated during sleep it can result in night terrors.

Our sleep is broken up in different stages. We dream and have nightmares in our deepest sleep stage – the REM sleep stage.

This is also the sleep stages when night terrors happen.

It is less a night mare and more a sudden scared reaction when our body transitions from one stage to another.

Following can be the cause of sleep terrors:

  • Stress
  • Overtired
  • New medication got introduced
  • too much caffeine
  • Sleeping in a new environment or away from home
  • Fever or general illness
  • Traveling or sleep interruptions

While it is usually harmless there are few underlying issues causing night terrors to happen:

  • Abnormal breathing patterns during the night (like sleep apnea)
  • Restless leg symptom
  • Medications
  • Mood disorders like anxiety and depression

Sleep terrors can happen on only a single night and then never again or several night before they stop again.

In most cases night terrors just disappear on their own as your kid gets older.

What can I do to help my toddler?

As a parent you might feel absolutely helpless when you just can’t get your kid to calm down.

The best response on your side is being very patient and remain calm. Wait it out and make sure that your child can not hurt themselves or you while kicking around – pretty much how you would react to a seizure.

After a few minutes of waiting everything should go back to normal and your kid back to sleep.

While you might have the impulse to do so it is actually better to not tray to wake your kid up.

It will be very hard to even get your child to wake up and when you do wake your child up there’s a good chance your toddler is very confused and disoriented and takes way longer to fall back asleep.

crying kid

What can I do to prevent night terrors?

There is no easy treatment but you can do a few things including:

  • Introducing a calm and relaxing bedtime routine
  • Reduce stress
  • Making sure that your toddler get’s enough sleep overall
  • Don’t wait until your kid is already over tired
  • Don’t let your kid stay up too long

And if your kid experiences them around the same time every night you can try to wake them up about 15 minutes before and see if that will prevent night terrors from happening.

A relaxing bedtime routine can include a bath before bedtime with lavender scented baby bath and reading a bedtime story.

Night terrors happen

Just remember to stay calm and collected and follow this checklist:

  1. Stay calm
    It won’t help anyone if you fall into a stage of panic even though it is very frightening to see your child like that especially when it happens the first time.
  2. Don’t wake your child
    Waking your is very hard or impossible and results in confusion and even longer time to settle down again.
  3. Wait it out
    Night terror episodes usually only last a few minutes.
  4. Make sure your kid can’t hurt themselves or you
    Sometimes toddlers start kicking during sleep terrors.
  5. Mention it to your pediatrician
    At the next physical let your doctor know night terrors are happening and consult if they are happening a lot.

Now you are prepared if night terrors happen to your toddler and know what to do when it happens.

Just remind yourself you are not the only parent with this scary problem – You got this mama!

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