How to Handle Toddler Night Terrors

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If your child is screaming out in his sleep, and appears to be agitated or even hysterical when you reach out to comfort him in his bed, he may be suffering from a sleep disruption called night terrors. Night terror episodes are frightening and disruptive to both parent and child.

What Are Night Terrors?
Night terrors typically occur at least 90 minutes after the child falls asleep. The child may appear to be awake, but a night terror is similar to sleep walking. The child is sitting up, his eyes are open, and he is crying out, but he is not actually awake. A child experiencing night terrors will have recurrent episodes of sleep disruption, inconsolable crying, fear and panic. The child may display physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, rapid breathing and sweating. Illness, stress, sleep deprivation, certain medications and even a night time bath, can all be possible causes of night terrors. If your child suffers from night terrors, it may ease your mind to know that most children outgrow the disorder as they get older.

What is a Parent to Do?
When you are awakened by an ear piercing scream coming from your toddler?s room, your instincts tell you to run to him, and wrap him in your arms to comfort him. Though that response is a natural one, it will not help the child experiencing a night terror. When a child is having a night terror, he may be thrashing around the bed and screaming, but he is also disoriented and confused. He will be unresponsive to your touch, and talking to him might increase his agitation. You should not try to help the child snap out of it by trying to wake him up, or by shaking him. Night terrors usually subside after a few minutes, and the child will lie down and go back to sleep. He will usually not remember the episode the next morning. Keeping a log of the time of onset of the episode can be helpful. Observe your child for signs of agitation after he goes to sleep. If you see a pattern developing, you can try waking the child 15-20 minutes before the episode begins. The best recourse is to remain calm, remove toys and other objects that may hurt him, dim the lights, keep him safe, and quietly observe him until the night terror subsides.

When to Seek Medical Advice
Night terrors result in disrupted sleep and even sleep deprivation. This could lead to concentration problems, extreme crankiness, and inability to stay awake during the day. If the condition persists, you should seek the advice of your child's pediatrician or other medical authority.

Cite this page: N., Sam M.S., "How to Handle Toddler Night Terrors," in, September 9, 2013, (accessed August 17, 2022).