Your toddler’s night terrors

The difference between nightmares and night terrors, plus what to do when your child has a night terror

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Night terrors – periods of panic and anxiety during sleep – are not only disturbing for the child having them but pretty scary for parents to deal with, too. During a terror your child will probably scream, look extremely frightened and may push you away if you try to help. Although her eyes may be open, she’s actually still asleep.

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“It’s like a panic attack,” says Chireal Shallow, child sleep consultant and former psychologist. “Your child’s brain moves into a flight or fight response to danger, based on the scary images she’s seeing in her mind. This triggers palpitations, hysteria and screams. She may even try to fight you.”

About 15% of children suffer from night terrors, mostly between the ages of 2 and 6, though children as young as 1 can have them. For the majority, it’s a phase they’ll grow out of by adolescence. But while they’re happening to your child, here’s what you need to know…

Your child’s night terrors are very physical

The first time you witness your child having a night terror can be very upsetting and confusing. “Some parents think their child is having a fit,” says Dr Su Laurent, consultant paediatrician and author of Your Baby Month By Month (Dorling Kindersley). “This is because during a night terror a child’s arms may flail, many of her movements are jerky and while her eyes are open, she won’t be conscious – so when you try to talk to her, you realise she isn’t really there.”

Your child’s night terrors happen randomly

Despite the name, night terrors don’t have to happen at night. “It’s unusual, but possible, for children to be affected during day naps,” says Su.

Night terrors tend to happen during the first two hours after falling asleep, during the deeper, non-dreaming phase of sleep. Nightmares, on the other hand, usually happen later during the night, during dream sleep.

Night terrors could be genetic

“Experts aren’t really sure what causes night terrors,” says Su. “But there is strong evidence to suggest a genetic link.”

Don’t despair – it doesn’t mean all your children will suffer from them just because one does. If your child is genetically predisposed to them, be aware that there does seem to be a link with over-tiredness. Make sure she gets enough sleep with a set bedtime, plus a rest time in the middle of the day. Fever and stressful events may prompt an episode, too.

How to deal with your child’s night terrors

Don’t be tempted to move your child into a different room – even to avoid waking a sibling. “This may unwittingly promote the message that your child’s bedroom isn’t a safe place and encourage the night terror behaviour,” says Chireal.

A night terror usually lasts between five and 30 minutes. At the end of it, your child will either wake up or fall back to sleep. If your child wakes, don’t talk about the episode, as she won’t remember it and it might distress her.

Some children wander about during night terrors, so put away toys that could be a trip hazard, lock outside doors, and install a stairgate.

If your toddler is having a run of night terrors at the same time every night, it may be worth trying to wake her a few minutes before it would usually happen. “The interruption in her sleep cycle may stop the night terror from occurring,” says Su.

There’s no need to see your GP about night terrors, but do book a visit if you’re not sure of the diagnosis, the night terrors are very frequent or you’re worried about your toddler suffering from sleep deprivation.

The key differences between nightmares and night terrors

Nightmares:

  1. Can happen at any age
  2. Occur later in the night during the dream phase
  3. Can often be remembered by your child
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Night terrors:

  1. Usually only affect children up to a certain age
  2. Tend to happen in the first two hours of sleep
  3. Your child won’t recall the experience or what he was dreaming about

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