Night Terrors In Toddlers: Symptoms And How To Help

Does your child suffer from night terrors? If you’re looking to learn more about night terror symptoms in toddlers and how to treat them, you’ve come to the right place! In this handy guide, we’ve pinpointed the key symptoms associated with this abnormal sleep state, as well as the things you can do to help combat your child’s night terrors.

For any sleep related issues, it’s always best to have a dedicated video baby monitor to keep an eye on things while you speak to professionals to get help if required.

What are child's night terrors?

Night terrors are often mistaken for nightmares. To parents, they may seem similar; however, this is far from the case. The cause of night terrors is parasomnia, which is an unusual state of sleep and is when night terrors happen.

Other symptoms caused by parasomnia and night terrors in children include talking while sleeping and sleepwalking. If your toddler appears to be awake yet isn’t responsive, it is likely they’re experiencing sleep terrors.

The likelihood is your children will grow out of their night terrors. However, if you’re concerned, it is always a good idea to enlist the help of a professional such as a sleep doctor who specialises in sleepwalking and night terrors in children.

In some instances, they can be a symptom of an underlying issue and one that requires attention to assist both you and your toddler in getting a better night’s sleep. Sleep deprivation is no fun for anyone!

If the night terrors have become disturbing for one or both parties, speaking to a doctor will reassure you and provide you with guidance, as well as tips on treating night terrors.

Why do night terrors happen?

Night terrors are the result of your toddler or child waking abruptly amid an extremely deep sleep. Throughout this deep sleep, your toddler isn't dreaming, which means they generally don’t wake up.

These episodes tend to occur between two and three hours after the child falls asleep.

This is the point when most switch from a night of deep sleep to a night of lighter sleep. If the central nervous system (CNS) becomes triggered at the point of this transition, nightmares and night terrors occur.

Why? These episodes are the result of the body’s stress response, while the brain continues to stay in a state of deep sleep.

Thankfully, this usually means your child won’t be aware of what is happening or remember the sleep terror episode.

Those more susceptible to night terrors boast a family history of sleepwalking, sleep terrors, or sleep problems.

Certain circumstances affecting your child's sleep, such as noises, a full bladder, or sudden shifts in temperature, can trigger night terrors.

This is often why night terrors tend to occur when your toddler is suffering from a fever or is overly tired. These factors can lead to more extended periods of dreamless, deep sleep in most children.

Night terror symptoms in toddlers

Key differential factors between sleepwalking, nightmares and night terrors comprise reactions such as thrashing around, screaming, and sudden movements, such as sitting upright in bed or even jumping out of bed.

Your child’s eyes can also open, yet this doesn’t mean the toddler is awake, which can confuse those watching the sleep terrors unfold.

Even if your child appears to look awake, they will likely show zero recognition towards you, even if you try to comfort them.

Night terrors tend to last for 15 minutes and can occur up to several times throughout the night. It is rare, although not impossible, for symptoms to last longer. It’s a good idea to keep a sleep diary to monitor this.

In most cases, night terrors will take place a few hours after bedtime, just before the child starts to dream.

During a night terror, the following symptoms are common:

Sitting up quickly in bed

It’s common for those experiencing an episode to suddenly sit up straight in bed. They may look awake, yet they are still asleep and have no idea they are doing this and will usually go back to sleep.

Thrashing in bed

Some toddlers will lash out with sleep terrors, which is why it is essential to ensure they’re in a safe space, void of sharp objects or other people.

Shouting out

From screaming to shouting out, this is another symptom of night terrors in children.

This can also affect the rest of the household, which is why it’s important to keep bedroom doors and windows closed if your home set-up allows for this, at least until the morning.

Quick breathing and heart rate

If moving around a lot during the night terrors, it’s likely your toddler’s heart rate and breathing will speed up.

This is not a cause for concern and is simply the body’s response to the night terror episode.

Sweating

If thrashing around and screaming during sleep terrors, toddlers can begin to sweat.

This can cause stress on our children, which is often why those who experience them will feel tired or emotional the next day.

If these night terrors are becoming a regular occurrence, it may be wise to have a fresh pair of dry pyjamas on hand to put on before the child falls asleep again.

Looking scared

One of the most alarming factors surrounding a night terror is that the toddler experiencing the sleep terrors will often appear terrified, and because they are in such a deep state of sleep, you may feel helpless when it comes to comforting them.

In certain scenarios, their eyes will also be open, or they will show signs of rapid eye movement, which can disturb those watching the event.

Crying

This is a common reaction to a night terror, especially if the child wakes up feeling confused or scared. This is when it is crucial to remain calm when they wake up, speak calmly and issue soothing comments - an angry parent will only be more cause for alarm.

Not recognising you when they wake up 

Children coming out of a nigh terror can appear confused when they finally wake. They may even struggle to recognise their surroundings. Having their favourite soft toy or blanket on hand will help to reassure them post the event.

Pushing you away

If confused, they may not recognise you at first or understand why you’re trying to comfort them. Don’t be alarmed by this and continue to soothe them until they become more aware.

Are there any potential complications with night terrors?

Night terrors aren’t usually a cause for concern, and in most cases, they aren’t a sign of underlying medical issues and won’t lead to any severe health complications. As most toddlers fail to remember the night terror, they tend not to get upset, providing you remain calm.

On the other hand, constant night terrors can sometimes cause concern and often mean something is disrupting your child’s sleeping pattern. This could be due to anxiety, a disruptive environment or eating habits to name a few things. A good night's sleep is imperative to a child’s physical and mental well-being.

More serious complications to consider and watch out for include sleep apnoea, which can affect your toddler’s breathing. If you think your toddler may be affected by this, it’s essential to speak to a doctor immediately. It may be worth purchasing a baby breathing monitor to give you a complete peace of mind.

Finally, if your child tends to move around or thrash out when experiencing night terrors, it is a good idea to make their bedroom a safe space. Covering sharp corners and fitting safety gates to prevent them from falling down any stairs or walking into walls is a must! Don’t wake your child, and try to gently direct your toddler back to their bed instead.

As well as considering kids who are going through night terrors, it’s important to consider those they may be affecting. For example, if your child shares a bedroom with their sibling, consider how these episodes affect their sleep and wellbeing too.

What can you do to help?

There are many tips and tricks when it comes to helping your toddler overcome night terrors, some of which we have listed below:

Take your child to the doctor

If the night terrors are reoccurring or, worse still, happening several times per night, this is when you should consider seeking professional help or looking into certain medications. There may be a simple reason or common parasomnias why these episodes occur so much.

Create a peaceful sleeping environment

A peaceful sleeping environment is necessary to ensure a restful night’s sleep. There are many ways to promote a peaceful sleep environment, from considering the colour of your toddler’s bedroom to the lighting, the temperature, and the routine undertaken before putting your kids to bed.

Promote a relaxing bedtime routine

Try to get your kids in the habit of going to bed at the same time every night. From laying a cozy pair of pyjamas out to reading them a bedtime story to giving them a warming drink an hour before their bedtime, a relaxing routine is an asset to a good night’s sleep and is a simple way to tackle common sleep problems.

Make sure your child gets enough sleep

Sleep is hugely important, and a lack of it can cause us and our kids to be moody, agitated, overtired, and unfocused. Try to aim for at least the minimum hours recommended for your child’s age per evening. Find the perfect bedtime routine with the Babysense sleep calculator

Stay calm

If a child wakes you amid a night terrors episode, you must remain calm. Waking them abruptly can cause them to become confused or lash out. If they do wake up, it’s likely they will be feeling scared, which is why you must remain calm and talk to them in a soothing manner.

Avoiding intervening or waking them up

As we’ve already mentioned, waking a toddler up when they’re experiencing a night terror can be dangerous. Like those who sleepwalk, it’s important to monitor them (to prevent them from hurting themselves) but not disturb them.

When should you consider seeing a doctor?

A nightmare now and again is completely normal. However, if your child is suffering from night terrors every night, it can be a scary experience for both you and anyone your kids may share a room with.

On the plus side, those who experience night terrors remember very little about them when they wake. Still, if the issue is recurring and it’s affecting your toddler’s sleep pattern and mood the next day, this is when seeking help from a specialist is a must. They may even carry out a sleep study to identify and address sleep problems.

They will offer counselling and guidance. A doctor will also assist in reassuring you that these episodes aren’t related to some other underlying sleep disorder issue while providing tips on preventing night terrors.

In children, things to look out for include irritability, anxiety, a lack of concentration, or a constant feeling of tiredness.

FAQs

Are night terrors dangerous for my child?

Night terrors in children, although a little on the scary side, won’t harm your child. If they involve sleepwalking, it’s vital to ensure they are in a safe space; however, the best thing for parents to do is ride it out until the morning.

What triggers night terrors in toddlers?

An array of factors can cause night terrors in children. This includes too deep of a sleep, being overtired, medication, fever, nighttime fears. They can also be caused by anything that will cause your toddler to wake suddenly from a deep sleep, such as noise, anxiety, or a full bladder.

In rare cases, the night terrors are a sign of something more serious.

At what age will night terrors start to subside?

Night terrors in children tend to occur in toddlers and kids between the ages of 2-4 years. However, they can be a problem for children up to 12 years. Most will outgrow these when they reach puberty.

Should I wake my child up if they're sleepwalking?

It is essential to never wake your toddler when experiencing a night terror episode. They may struggle to recognise you, which could cause them to lash out or become scared. Instead, try to lead them back to a safe space without disturbing them.

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