Terrible Night Terrors?

toddler crying

Often parents confuse night terrors for nightmares and while both can be frightful if your child is waking up a few hours after bedtime screaming and inconsolable, often not remembering these episodes in the morning, night terrors may be the culprit and can occur in children as young as 2 years of age.

Night terrors are categorized as a parasomnias or confusional arousals and in the same category as sleepwalking and sleep talking, and they can be quite common. When your child is experiencing a night terror they can suddenly awaken in a confused and terrified state not communicating or responding to you. The entire episode can last from 15-20 minutes. While a nightmare tends to happen within the second half of the night and most times will be remembered in the morning, a night terror tends to occur within the first 2-3 hours of sleep and your child will have no recollection of it in the morning. Oftentimes if your child is experiencing a night terror once the episode is over they will just lie down and go back to sleep.

As scary as this can be for a parent to witness, keep in mind that your child will have no memory of the event and the best thing to do is just allow her to cycle through it and to not try to wake her up fully as this can make it worse. If you need to, you can go to her and hold her to ensure she doesn’t fall off the bed or hurt herself if she is getting out of bed. If she is walking around, gently guide her back into bed.

There are a few things that you can do as a parent to reduce or eliminate night terrors altogether.

#1. Maintain a consistent age-appropriate schedule. Start resetting her internal clock by waking her up at the same time every morning and making sure that she is going to bed at an appropriate time in the evening. Make sure naps are happening at the same time everyday and that if your older child has stopped napping, make sure they have at least 1 hour of alone, quiet-time in the afternoon in their room.

#2. Eliminate screen time at least 1-2 hours before bed.

#3. Have a great wind-down & bedtime routine in place. Slowly start to reduce activity, noise level, and activity level after dinner until bedtime. No outside playtime or vigorous activities after dinner. Have a good, solid bedtime routine that is enjoyable for everyone involved and includes quiet and relaxing activities like a bath and some books.

#4. Make sure your child is getting enough sleep. Night terrors typically occur when a child is chronically sleep deprived. Children need much more sleep than adults and naps are just as important so make sure your child is getting enough hours.

#5. Consistency & routine! Be committed to following through with an age-appropriate schedule and be consistent with it and you will see great things happen!


Erin Oliveira is Certified Sleep Consultant, Trained Good Night Sleep Educator, and mother to an out-going and funny little girl. She also has a university degree in Early Childhood Education and has spent many years working with small children. She is committed to helping families get the healthy sleep they deserve and invites you to join her Facebook page and visit her website for more sleep tips.

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