Picture this: you have just put your two-year-old son or daughter to bed, then tiptoe downstairs.

Everything seems to be going according to plan – they have slept soundly for several hours. Suddenly, they scream inconsolably, and you dart upstairs to see them thrashing around as they lie in their cot or bed. But all of your attempts to comfort them are futile.

No matter their age, youngsters can have trouble sleeping. Whether this is due to restlessness, separation anxiety, or another condition, finding out the cause can be hard. However, if you notice that your toddler is experiencing high levels of distress while they nod off, this could indicate a problem known as night terrors.

If night terrors are to blame, you might wonder why this is the case. Have you been overlooking a crucial part of your toddler’s development, ignoring a fear, or unknowingly raising their stress levels? You need not worry, as this is fairly common in many families across the country. This article will aim to explain what night terrors are, what causes them, and how you can manage them when they occur.

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What are night terrors?

Night terrors are unpleasant neurological processes that happen during the phase of sleep before the rapid eye movement period, such as the light, moderate and deep sleep stages. They usually affect children aged 2 to 12 but can also affect adults.

They are characterized by a horrible feeling of fear and dread as someone falls asleep, but often not due to a frightening stimulus. They are not usually remembered in the morning and will occur while the child is asleep, even though they may not look like they are.

Symptoms of night terrors

You must first learn their symptoms to notice and react to your child’s night terrors. Every episode presents differently depending on the toddler, but here is a list of common traits you will notice when one happens.

  • Rapid heartbeat and breathing.
  • The toddler may appear intensely afraid of something unseeable in the room.
  • Open eyes, but not responsive.
  • Thrashing.
  • Screaming.
  • Hyperactive.
  • Attempts to fight or escape from other people.
  • Sweating.
  • Dilation of the pupils.
  • Tensed muscles all over the body.
  • Does not calm down when consoled.

If any of these seem familiar, you know what you are dealing with. Toddlers may exhibit these behaviors for up to 40 minutes in some cases but will regularly fall back into a deep sleep again once the episode is over.

Why is my toddler having night terrors?

Your toddler is more likely to have night terrors due to certain external factors. These could be attributed to the following:

  • A bad fever or virus. Since the body is overworked while fighting the infection, night terrors can occur.
  • Taking a new medication. If the toddler is taking medicine for a health condition that you have not observed them take before, the body can react fearfully during the night as it digests and processes the substance.
  • Anxiety. If your child is experiencing many problems at home or school which are making them excessively scared, then your child is more likely to experience night terrors, and more frequently too. You should seek a child psychiatrist to see what might be attributed to this.
  • Being in an unfamiliar place. This can be difficult to process for young children, and falling asleep in a bed or room other than their own might make the body go into shock.
  • Overtiredness. You might think that a tired child will sleep soundly rather than get night terrors, but this is far from the case. The more tired your child is, the more likely they will get night terrors.
  • Being overwhelmed. If your child has experienced lots of loud noises, bright lights, and exciting stimuli throughout the day, they are at a higher risk of having difficulty sleeping.

What can I do if my toddler is having night terrors?

If your toddler is having a night terror, there is not much you can do to console them, but you can wait with them until they go back to sleep. This will prevent them from hurting themselves, acting impulsively, and causing harm to themselves or their surroundings.

Try to attribute a cause to this occurrence. You should look at their daily routine and see what can be done differently. Upon investigation, it might be that your toddler is highly stressed and overwhelmed by specific factors, like going to nursery, for example, or watching a television show. You can aim to reduce or manage these for a better night’s sleep.

Is it a night terror or a nightmare?

Another question you might consider is if your toddler truly is having night terrors or if they are experiencing bad nightmares instead.

These are pretty distinguishable to anyone in doubt. In the case of a nightmare, these tend to last longer. Your toddler will be less violent and intense in their reaction and can usually remember parts of its narrative or scary images that were present. Night terrors are bursts of energy that the child rarely remembers.