Weird Toddler Sleep Behaviors

Sleep Habits for Toddlers - Illustration by Madelyn Goodnight

Verywell / Madelyn Goodnight

Your toddler is down for the night and you sink into your sofa cushions for some much-deserved rest. After chasing your little explorer around all day, nothing sounds better than a glass of wine and your latest favorite show. But before you settle in, you decide to take one last peek at your sleeping angel.

Instead of seeing your child in peaceful repose, their body jerks up and down and a jumble of nonsense words comes out of their mouth. A scene like this may be alarming, but many seemingly weird sleep behaviors, such as jerking movements and sleep-talking, are common.

We reached out to two certified pediatric sleep consultants to help you understand which sleep behaviors and harmless and which might be a cause for concern.

Strange Sleep Habits

Right before falling asleep or while sleeping, your little one may grunt or talk. They might sit up suddenly and cry, walk around, or even bang their head on the wall. They can be concerning at first, but many odd-seeming sleep behaviors can be left alone. If they are causing a problem, there are a few tricks to minimize their impact.

Grunting

Toddlers may make all sorts of weird noises in their sleep, including grunts and cry-outs that may be startling to you. This is very common and does not indicate that your baby is in distress, even if it sounds like it.

If the noise bothers you or another child in your home, however, you may want to take some measures to minimize it. Consider using a white noise machine, earplugs, or sleeping in another room instead of room-sharing.

Head-Banging

If your toddler rocks back and forth on their hands and knees or their bangs head during the night, it is understandable to be confused. This behavior, called rhythmic movement disorder, is unlikely to indicate that anything is wrong with your toddler, especially if you only see it at nighttime.

"Rhythmic movement disorder is a parasomnia [sleep disorder] that sounds scary but is not harmful at all," says Heather Wallace, a certified pediatric sleep consultant and and the owner of BraveHeart Consulting. "It can be quite alarming to the parent but in general, it is not going to cause any damage."

To prevent your child from getting hurt, make sure that their sleep environment is safe. You also want to make sure that rhythmic movement is not impacting your toddler's sleep quality. "The biggest issue is an unrestful sleep that causes the child to be tired the next day," notes Wallace. "Talk to your doctor if your child does not seem rested after a full night's sleep."

Jerky Movements

You might see your toddler making sudden, jerking movements as they are falling asleep. Known as hypnic jerks, these are involuntary muscle contractions and they happen to almost everyone. You have probably experienced them yourself, right as you are drifting off.

"Hypnic jerks are basically the brain telling the body to stay on guard because you're falling asleep," explains Wallace. "Hypnic jerks are not harmful, but they can be caused by overtiredness or anxiety."

Leg Cramps

If your toddler wakes up crying and saying their legs hurt, it could be nocturnal leg cramps. These are sudden, involuntary contractions of the calves during the night that last anywhere from a few seconds up to 10 minutes.

Leg cramps are sometimes thought to be growing pains, but they are more likely caused by dehydration. "Sitting for too long, overusing the leg muscles, or having flat feet can also cause leg cramps during the night," says Erica Threet, M.Ed, CSWSC, a certified pediatric sleep consultant with Sleep Wise Consulting. "Drinking enough water and getting plenty of exercise will help reduce them."

Nightmares

Nightmares include any vivid nighttime event that evokes fear or anxiety in your child. "We start to see nightmares around the ages of 3 or 4 when the imagination begins to develop," Threet says.

In general, nightmares do not indicate that anything is wrong and they won't hurt your child. But, you might want to do a few things to help reduce their occurrence. Cutting down or eliminating screen time, especially before bed, may help.

"I also recommend refraining from serving your child [cow's] milk at bedtime and limiting their total daily intake to 8 to 16 ounces," notes Threet. "The hormones in [cow's] milk may cause nightmares."

When nightmares do happen, listen to your child and reassure them. They are truly frightened and in need of comfort. Spend some time with them telling them, "It was not real, you are safe," before putting them back to bed. Making sure they are still awake when you put them down again will help this from turning into a sleep issue.

Night Terrors

Night terrors are completely different than nightmares. A child experiencing a night terror may flail their limbs, scream, and seem panicked. Unlike a nightmare, however, your child won't remember the experience afterward. "Night terrors are often more upsetting to the parent than to the child," notes Threet.

Sleep deprivation or being overtired can trigger night terrors. They are common in kids ages 3 to 7. Night terrors will happen early in the night, around three hours after going to sleep, and can last 15 to 20 minutes. "You might see them more often when a child is sick, going through a lot of change, needs a schedule change, is sleep deprived, or has dropped their nap too soon," says Threet.

Night terrors may appear really scary, but they won't do any harm. The best thing you can do is make sure your child is safe and just let it play out. "Leave the lights off, don’t interact with the child, and don't try and wake them up," advises Threet. "This will only increase the intensity of the night terror."

If night terrors are a recurring problem, it is advisable to look at your toddler's sleep schedule, including naps, to make sure they are getting the recommended 11 to 14 hours per day. You can also remove any sugar or caffeine close to sleep times and pull back on screen time.

Sometimes, rousing your toddler at a specific time of night can help reduce night terrors. If you wake them slightly right when they are transitioning into REM sleep (which is when night terrors happen), you effectively reset their sleep cycle. In other words, it's almost like you are putting them to sleep again, but they are more rested so it goes more smoothly.

Sleep-Talking

If your toddler already seems to talk all day, you might not be totally surprised to hear them talking at night, too. Their words may be a mix of recognizable phrases and complete jibberish. "[Sleep-talking] usually happens right before you fall asleep, or often when you are coming out of sleep," says Wallace.

Sleep-talking is generally normal and nothing to worry about. Your toddler might just be acting out their dreams. If you or your partner sleep-talk, your child may be more likely to do so as well.

Sleepwalking

Sleepwalking happens due to the same phenomenon as sleep-talking. If you have a sleepwalker though, you need to make sure they stay safe when getting out of bed. It may be advisable to install gates or lock the bedroom door from the outside so that your toddler is not able to move freely around your home.

Sleepwalking typically happens about an hour or two after going to sleep and lasts five to 10 minutes. "[Sleepwalking] can be aggravated by stress, fatigue, sleep deprivation or some medications, or sleeping with a full bladder," notes Threet.

When possible, leave a child who is sleepwalking alone. Gently walk them back to bed if needed. "Try not to arouse the child, as this can cause fear and cause the child to be disoriented," says Wallace.

Concerning Sleep Behaviors

While many weird sleep behaviors are just that—weird—others may indicate a problem. If your child is snoring or goes moments without breathing during sleep, give your pediatrician a call. Wetting the bed after age 5 or teeth grinding also needs to be addressed.

We broke down the sleep behaviors that warrant a pediatrician's visit so you will know what to do if you see them in your child.

Bedwetting

Bedwetting can be normal for some kids, but it might also indicate a problem. Known as nocturnal enuresis, nighttime accidents can be the result of psychological stress. Reach out to your pediatrician if wetting the bed continues after age 5 or if your night-trained toddler starts having frequent accidents again.

Bedwetting has a genetic component, so if you had nighttime accidents as a child, your child may also.

Snoring

Toddlers should not snore. If notice your toddler snoring, it will likely be around the second stage of sleep, when the body starts relaxing.

Call your child's pediatrician if they snore any time during the night. Snoring is often caused by enlarged adenoids and tonsils as well as obstruction due to allergies. These issues need to be addressed by a healthcare provider. Snoring has been linked to structural changes in the brain, so it's important to treat.

Snoring might also be connected to the reason your child struggles with bedwetting. "While you are in deep sleep, a hormone is released that causes your body not to pee," explains Wallace. "It could be that snoring keeps kids in a lighter stage of sleep, preventing this [hormone from releasing] and leading to bedwetting."

Sleep Apnea

If your toddler stops breathing for short periods of time during the night, you should let their pediatrician know. This is called sleep apnea, and it can have serious health consequences, such as leading to high blood pressure by the teen years.

Sleep apnea also causes short-term problems because it puts your child into a state of sleep deprivation. Each time they stop breathing, they wake up briefly to take a big breath. These brief wake-ups add up to a big loss of sleep, which can affect behavior and the ability to learn.

Teeth Grinding

Some toddlers may clench or grind their teeth involuntarily while asleep. See your pediatrician or a pediatric dentist if you notice this, as teeth grinding can erode the teeth. It may also indicate that your toddler is not getting enough vitamins.

A Word From Verywell

Toddlers do many strange things while they are asleep or falling asleep. The good news is that many of these behaviors are normal and do not indicate that anything is wrong, such as experiencing nightmares or sleepwalking from time to time.

Some nighttime behaviors could indicate a problem, though. Tell your pediatrician if your child snores or stops breathing periodically while asleep, if they grind their teeth, or if they are wetting the bed past the age of 5.

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Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elisa Cinelli
Elisa is a well-known parenting writer who is passionate about providing research-based content to help parents make the best decisions for their families. She has written for well-known sites including POPSUGAR Family and Scary Mommy, among others.