Sleepy Nights: Night Terrors in Toddlers and What to Do About Them
Topics covered in this article:
- What are night terrors?
- The difference between night terrors and nightmares.
- The causes of night terrors.
- Are night terrors an indicator of psychological problems?
- Understanding the sleep cycles at different ages.
- Different types of sleep disorders.
- What to do when your child is in the middle of a night terror episode.
- Things to do to ensure a relaxing bedtime routine.
- How to get your child to sleep in their own bed.
- Tips on how to get your child to sleep through the night.
- Ways to tire your child out during the day.
What are night terrors?
Night terrors are a certain type of sleep disturbance. A child would typically react as if he was having a nightmare by screaming, crying or thrashing about, except with eyes wide open. When night terrors occur, your child will look awake but is actually half-way between being asleep and awake. Try as you might, your child won’t respond to you while he’s having an episode because they’re entirely unaware of your presence. Usually, moving through every stage of sleep happens smoothly. Night terrors, however, happen when mysterious glitches occur during the transition into a deep sleep. Typically, a night terror episode can last from a few minutes to nearly an hour. It is not uncommon for children from the ages of two to about eleven to experience night terrors.
What’s the difference between night terrors and nightmares?
Nightmares will leave your child fully awake and conscious, while your child won’t even remember night terrors. When a nightmare occurs, your child will remember the dream and seek your presence as comfort. Night terrors usually happen during the first third of the night, which is during the REM (dream) sleep, causing your child to have no recollection of it. Night terrors can be spotted if your child suddenly awakens from their sleep, if they have persistent fear or terror that occurs at night, screaming, sweating, confusion, rapid heart rate, inability to explain what happened and usually no recall of “bad dreams” or nightmares. Although they have no recollection of the night terror, your child may have a vague sense of frightening images. Many children see spiders, snakes, animals or people in the room and are unable to fully awake. This makes your child difficult to comfort, whilst having no memory of the event when awakening the next day.
What are some of the causes of night terrors?
It’s tricky because no one knows exactly what triggers night terrors to occur. Because of this they can’t really be prevented. It is known, however, that night terrors are caused by over-arousal of the central nervous system (CNS) during sleep. We are still unsure as to why this happens. Sometimes though, it might be triggered by fevers or lack of sleep. If your child has not been getting as much sleep as usual, it might be worth enforcing more sleep and monitoring if they still ‘wake’ from night terrors.
Are Night Terrors an indicator of psychological problems?
On their own, night terrors are not an indicator of psychological problems, or even that your child is upset. Though this is not well tested, if your child has terrors at similar times each night, introducing scheduled awakening (waking the child 15-20 minutes before the normal terror time) could help. That being said, it might have an adverse effect and possibly trigger a night terror. You will learn more through trial and error and eventually, find a system that works best for you and your child.
Do you understand the sleep cycles at different ages?
Something as simple as sleeping can actually be a very complex concept to understand, even more so with babies and toddlers. Your child would stay up all night if they could, so it’s important for you, as the parent, to put rules in place for them to get a good night’s sleep. To help you understand the amount of sleep they require to be happy and healthy kids, see our breakdown of the normal amount of sleep they should be getting every day.
Sleep cycles of new-borns: Babies aged zero to three months, sleep 10.5-18hrs a day on and off. Sessions of being awake vary from periods of one to three hours.
Sleep cycles of babies aged four – eleven months: Babies should sleep through the night and take 30-120 min naps one-four times per day. These naps will reduce as they near 12 months.
Sleep cycles of babies aged one to two-years-old: Babies aged from one-two require 11-14 hours a day and 1.5-year olds should nap once a day for about one – three hours.
Sleep cycles of toddlers aged three to five-years-old: Toddlers should be sleeping for 11-13 hours a night, but most don’t nap during the day. It is during this time that night terrors usually peak.
Sleep cycles of children aged six to thirteen-years-old: Children these ages can sleep from anywhere between 9 to 11 hours daily. At this age, it’s normal for TV, computers, media and internet to act as in interruption during their sleep times. This can affect their ability to fall asleep and might even trigger nightmares.
Has your child been restless lately?
If your child has been restless lately, there are a few things to look for before it becomes a bigger issue. Night terrors are one of the topics we are going to unpack, but before diving deeper into night terrors, there are a few other signs to look out for – should your child be struggling with a sleep disorder.
Excessive Daytime Sleepiness
If daytime sleepiness is common, it may be a sign of a sleeping disorder called Excessive Daytime Sleepiness (EDS)– even if they seem to be getting enough sleep.
If your child takes too long to fall asleep or wakes up at early hours of the morning, it could be a beginning sign of insomnia.
Occasional nightmares are common in children from three years old and are more frequent between six and ten-year old’s. If the nightmares are very frequent, however, they can lead to sleep disorders. These sleep disorders can disturb the sleep patterns of your child and lead to EDS, anxiety and other behavioural problems.
Did you know that 30% of children between three and seven have sleepwalked?
Most children outgrow it by their teenage years. Sleepwalking can be dangerous, even in a safe environment. Sleepwalking should be closely watched, as at times there can be stairs, appliances etc. involved. The best thing you can do while your child is sleepwalking is to ensure that they are in a safe environment and that they can’t do anything dangerous while sleeping.
What can you do when your child is in the middle of a night terror episode?
As much as you’d want to wake your child up to calm him or her down, it is vitally important that you do not wake them. They cannot be calmed down during an episode and trying to hold them could make them react even worse. However, if your child is in danger of hurting themselves, it is best to try and speak calmly to them and put yourself between them and dangerous objects. Act as a shield in case they pick something up that might seriously hurt them. Take the precautions you would take with a sleepwalker as they could sleepwalk or tumble out of bed during an episode. If you live in a double storey house, it might even be worth installing a gate at the top of your stairs. If you’ve noticed these night terrors occurring with your child, don’t leave objects lying around the house and lock all your windows and doors.
Is your child under any pressure?
If you sense your child might be under stress or pressure, perhaps it is worth trying to reduce your child’s stress by reading them a happy bedtime story or introducing a relaxing bedtime routine which could help them slip into a peaceful sleep. Creating a bedtime routine also encourages your child to go to sleep at a certain time, instead of staying up late with an overactive imagination. Before bedtime, it’s important that you calm your toddler, not excite them. A few other ways to create a relaxing bedtime routine could include the following:
- A bubble bath.
- Brushing teeth together.
- Calmly getting dressed for bed instead of rushing (remember your BabyLove Sleepy Nights Pants!)
- A quiet chat, explaining bedtime and the great rest they need to tackle the next day.
- A bedtime song that they can look forward to every night.
At the very real possibility that your child is still sleeping in your bed, or sometimes walks over to your bed during the course of the night, it is natural that you might feel the need to start getting them to sleep in their own bed. It is completely normal for kids to want to feel close to their parents, as they feel a sense of comfort when you’re around.
Should you feel the need to start moving them over to their own bed, we’ve got a few ways you can transition them smoothly.
How to get your child to start sleeping in their own bed?
Before bedtime, have a quiet and honest chat with your child explaining to them that parents sleep in their bed and kids in kids’ beds. Try and explain how strange it would be if parents slept in kids’ beds and vice versa. This will create an understanding between you and your child, empowering him to want to sleep in his own bed. After lights out, you have to be forceful. No compromise at all. Every time they come to your room, leave your bed and take them back to their room. Gently kiss them goodnight and leave.
If they’ve been sleeping in your bed all night, every night, take a mattress and sleep next to their bed. After a few nights, sit there until they sleep, then leave when they fall asleep. Don’t talk to them and make them fall asleep from boredom. If they make a fuss, leave until they stop – the reward is you sitting there.
The next morning, praise your child for his or her improvements. Tell them how proud you are and how big they are. This will make them start believing in themselves and wanting to make you proud every night.
Once your child has made it to their room, how do you get them to sleep through the night? Sleep issues have many causes and are very complex. They are hard to deal with because it isn’t only children who aren’t sleeping – it’s the parents as well. Sleep is crucial in all parts of our lives – especially our little one’s lives.
Are you hoping to get your child to sleep through the night?
Like many parents, this is a constant challenge you’ll face. Wouldn’t it be great if you could click your fingers and suddenly your child falls into a deep sleep until the next morning? I bet it would be! We’re not magicians, but these tips for toddlers might just help your toddler start sleeping peacefully throughout the night!
Tip one for getting your child to sleep through the night: Stay consistent in your bed-times.
Everyone has a biological clock. This clock needs to be set to function smoothly and without any glitches. When you stick to a constant bedtime and waking up time, you set your child’s biological clock. Aim for an early bedtime, as young children generally sleep better, more deeply and longer when they go to bed early. The ideal bedtime for your child should be between 6:30 and 7:30 pm.
Tip two for getting your child to sleep through the night: Have regular daily naps
If your child is particularly energetic, they are going to need a little break somewhere in the day. As the length of the day goes on – your child will become progressively more fussy and irritated. This is because he hasn’t had a chance to recharge during the day. Good naps = good night’s sleep.
Tip three for getting your child to sleep through the night: Adjust your child’s biological clock
The enemy you know, right? Jokes aside, you could use your child’s biological clock to your advantage so that when bedtime comes, they are actually tired and ready to go to bed. Darkness encourages your body to release a sleep hormone, making your little one ready for bed when the lights turn down. Consider syncing your child’s sleepiness and bedtime by starting to dim the lights during the hour before bedtime.
Tip four for getting your child to sleep through the night: Have a set bedtime routine
Having a consistent and set routine will help your child feel like there is a sense of control in his life. Organising your bedtime routine and coordinating it with specifics, will help you to get ready for bedtime easily and without any major fuss. Some of these specifics include a bath, pyjamas and tooth-brushing. Having a routine also helps mum and dad at the end of a long day.
Tip five for getting your child to sleep through the night: The right foods
Foods which contain large amounts of protein or sugar are notorious for generating alertness and wakefulness in your child. Carbohydrates, on the other hand, are known for having a soothing and calming effect on the body. Try introducing bedtime snacks that are filled with the food types that promote sleepiness. Why not let your child try some whole-wheat toast and cheese, oatmeal with bananas or some yoghurt with low-sugar granola?
Before bedtime, make sure to reduce the tv time. Time in front of a screen, or any electronics, keep your brain wired and will prevent your child from relaxing and going to bed.
Keep busy during the day, but try to keep the activities interesting and energetic. In the hour before bedtime, however, stay away from activity, as it won’t allow your children to calm down before it’s time to go to bed. Save all the playtime for during the day instead. It has been proved that children who are more active during the day, fall asleep quickly, sleep better and stay asleep longer.
Tip six for getting your child to sleep through the night: Keep them relaxed
Once children are in bed, many of them are still unsure of what to do now that they’re there. As a parent, try to create sleepiness with a relaxing and soothing bedtime routine. One thing that works great before bed and will help your child relax is story time. This activity will keep your child’s attention while allowing them to lie still and listen. The quiet and stillness, except for the parent’s voice, will create an atmosphere that is great to allow your child to become sleepy.
Are there ways to tire your child during the day?
Once you’ve created a routine that works for you and your child, we’re sure you’ll start to see some awesome changes. Another way to help your toddler sleep through the night, and in their own bed is to assist in tiring them out during the day. Simple activities can play a huge part in helping them sleep better. Activities act as a great way to tire your kids out during the day, so when the sun goes down, they’re ready for bed without any fuss or crying.
In summer, swimming during the day is a great way for your toddler to exert energy. If swimming isn’t an option, there are still plenty of other alternatives that involve water-play. You could invest in an inflatable pool, or spend some time playing outside in the sprinklers. The summertime is a great opportunity to have fun outside, exert energy and create wonderful memories.
Try leaving the stroller every now and again. If your toddler can walk, encourage it and take short brisk walks which will motivate your child to walk more frequently. If your toddler seems to feel that the stroller is the better option and doesn’t want to walk – make walking fun. This is when it becomes your responsibility to make walking the most fun activity imaginable. Make walking feel like such an adventure, that when your toddler is eventually back in the stroller – he feels like he’s missing out on all the walking fun. This is also a great way to tire the little ones out during the day.
How to make walking fun?
All out of ideas on how to make walking fun? Why not start off by talking about what you see. Talk about the cars, the birds, flowers and other things you can spot while walking. This will not only encourage physical activity but is also a great way to let kids start to think and interact with the world around them. You don’t even have to go far to do this. If you aren’t keen for a walk – use your backyard for some activity and to get their hearts pumping. There is a big beautiful world outside, and children are eager to explore it all. Start with baby steps and give them things as simple as spades and containers and watch them get dirty, make mud pies, play ball and do what kids do best – have fun.
If the outside world is still a bit daunting, or if the weather isn’t playing along and you still need to get rid of some energy in your toddler, put on some music. Dance around the house to your favourite songs. This is also a great way to have fun, as an adult, with your kid.
Even as adults, new experiences can leave us exhausted at the end of the day. The same is true for toddlers. Try to introduce them to new activities during the day. Lucky for you, there are countless things that your toddler hasn’t experienced yet.
Whether your child is suffering from night terrors, or if they just experience really bad nightmares – it is a stressful time for you and your young one. Try to calm them during the day and remind him or her of the positive things around them. Remind your child of the love he has in his life and that there is a strong, supportive and caring family around him – outside of the dream world.
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AAP. 2010a. A lullaby for good health. American Academy of Pediatrics. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/toddler/Pages/A-Lullaby-for-Good-Health.aspx
AAP. 2010b. Nightmares and night terrors. American Academy of Pediatrics. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/ages-stages/preschool/Pages/Nightmares-and-Night-Terrors.aspx
Bhargava S. 2011. Diagnosis and management of common sleep problems in children. Pediatrics in Review 32(3):91-9. http://pedsinreview.aappublications.org/content/32/3/91.extract
Nemours Foundation. 2010. Night terrors. http://kidshealth.org/parent/growth/sleep/terrors.html#