What Are Toddler Night Terrors?

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What Are Toddler Night Terrors?

Night terrors, also called sleep terrors, are sudden, partial awakenings from deep sleep characterized by intense fear, screaming, and difficulty fully waking up. These episodes are frequently confused with nightmares, the distinction being that nightmares happen in rapid eye movement (REM) or dream sleep and occur during a dream, while night terrors occur during deep sleep and/or the transition period between sleep stages and are not associated with a bad dream.

what causes night terrors in infants
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

Studies on the prevalence of sleep terrors are mixed, with results showing anywhere from under 2% to over 50% of kids experiencing them. Researchers speculate that the large variance may be due to underreporting, study design, age of participants, and mistaking a nightmare for a night terror or vice versa.

However, research does show that these sleep disturbances, which are a type of parasomnia (abnormal behavior of the central nervous system during sleep), are most common in young children between the ages of one and four. Children may have just one or a few night terrors or they may experience them night after night for months.

Treatments and prevention measures have limited efficacy but children do tend to grow out of having this sleep issue and for most kids, it's a short-lived phase.

In fact, a 2015 study found that around 33% of 18 month-olds have occasional night terrors. Overall, this phenomenon tends to occur most often in children 13 and younger, with about 56% of kids in that age range reporting having had at least one sleep terror. This type of sleep disturbance also appears to run in families, so if you had night terrors, your child is more likely to experience them as well.

Symptoms

As noted above, sleep terrors are different from nightmares in that kids having a night terror are difficult to wake up. This is because they are still partially asleep. They often appear groggy and have a glassy-eyed expression. Additionally, will not have a scary dream to report as they were not dreaming.

During a night terror, a child might:

  • Be inconsolable
  • Be non-responsive
  • Be upset or act scared
  • Fall back asleep after the episode without fully waking
  • Kick
  • Not remember the night terror
  • Scream or make noises of distress
  • Stare with eyes wide open
  • Suddenly sit up
  • Sweat excessively or breathe heavily
  • Thrash around

A night terror typically resolves after several minutes, although sometimes it can last longer. Night terrors, unlike nightmares, leave no memory because even though the toddler might look awake, they’re asleep throughout the incident.

Causes

Night terrors occur during non-rapid eye movement sleep, which is the deep sleep state when someone isn’t dreaming. Non-REM sleep usually occurs about two or three hours after children fall asleep. It's uncertain why night terrors happen or how to prevent them, but researchers suspect it has to do with an over-stimulation of the central nervous system.

While the exact causes are unknown, some factors may make sleep terrors more likely to occur, including the following:

  • Being overtired or sleep-deprived
  • Disruptions to routines or schedules, like during travel or a change in daily routine
  • Family history of sleep terrors
  • Illness or fever
  • Sleep-related breathing issues like apnea
  • Stress

Night terrors might also occur in children who start taking a new medication, are sleeping in a new environment, or due to ingesting too much caffeine. As mentioned above, there may also be a hereditary component. Toddlers with family members who've had night terrors (or a related sleep disorder like sleepwalking) may be more likely to have this sleep disturbance than someone who has no family history.

How to Help

During a night terror, it’s best not to try and wake your toddler, as they may end up being more upset and disoriented. It’s usually quite difficult to wake someone out of a night terror and forcing them awake might make it even worse by making it harder for them to fall back asleep. The most important thing is to make sure they’re safe during the event.

During a night terror, reassure your child in a soothing voice that they are safe, and if it seems to calm your child down, hold them until it's over.

As they aren't aware of their surroundings, the best thing you can do is make sure they won't fall or bang into anything. Other than that, simply wait out the night terror until your child drifts back off to sleep.

Home Remedies

There aren't cure-all treatments or proven prevention measures for night terrors. However, some families find that the following interventions lessen the risk of occurrence and the severity of the episodes:

  • As night terrors may happen more often in unfamiliar settings, such as sleepovers, be sure to alert other caregivers (such as grandparents or babysitters) about the condition and what to do if it happens.
  • Follow a simple, calming bedtime routine for your child.
  • Have a regular bedtime and don’t let them stay up too late.
  • Have the child sleep with you, either in the same bed (following all sleep safety guidelines) or in the same room.
  • If the child tends to have a night terror at the same time each night, preemptively wake them 15 or so minutes beforehand to circumvent the night terror. Then, put them back to bed.
  • Reduce any stress your toddler might be experiencing.
  • Try not to let them become overtired.
  • When traveling, try to stick to their regular bedtime routine as best as possible.

When to Consult a Doctor

If the night terrors become frequent or intrusive enough that they interfere with your toddler’s rest, last more than 30 minutes at a time, or significantly impact their life, be sure to consult their pediatrician.

It might be helpful to keep a sleep diary to note any patterns in behavior or nighttime awakenings to give your doctor more information about what’s been going on. This will also give them information that you might have forgotten, as well as give them a bigger clinical picture of the issue.

The doctor will usually do an examination of your child to rule out any physical cause of the night terrors or any underlying medical condition. Sometimes, a sleep study might be recommended, or your doctor might refer your child to a sleep specialist if they’re especially concerned or think a second opinion might be helpful.

Most times, there are no issues that need treatment. Night terrors are generally outgrown before adolescence, but if the night terrors get worse, it's important to let your pediatrician know.

A Word From Verywell

It's often scary, stressful, and upsetting to watch your child have a sleep terror—and hard to believe they aren't in danger or serious distress. However, know that this sleep issue is very common in toddlers, isn't damaging to your child, and will most likely pass with time.

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Article Sources
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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  2. Petit D, Pennestri M-H, Paquet J, et al. Childhood sleepwalking and sleep terrors: a longitudinal study of prevalence and familial aggregationJAMA Pediatr. 2015;169(7):653. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.127

  3. Stores G. Dramatic parasomnias. J R Soc Med. 2001;94(4):173-6. doi:10.1177/014107680109400405

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