Night Terror in Toddlers | Raising Children

What is Night Terror in Toddlers?

Has your little one been waking up at night in a state of terror or extreme fear? If so then your child may be suffering from night terror in toddlers. If this is the case, you are not alone. It is estimated that about 4% of the population suffer from night terrors at some time or other.

night terror in toddlers

I have to admit, I have been lucky and neither of my children have suffered from regular night terrors but I have come across other mothers whose children have suffered from them and I know from them that they can be extremely distressing.

Before jumping to conclusions though, I would like to tell you a little more about them so that you can best understand if they apply to you or your family.

Facts to note about night terror in toddlers:

  • Night terrors often tend to run in families so it is likely that there is a genetic component.
  • These terrors usually occur within the first hour or two of sleep and will frequently happen at the same time every night.
  • They can last between 5 and 20 minutes during which time it can be very difficult to awaken your child.
  • Symptoms include screaming, sweating, confusion and a very fast heartbeat. Your child will also fail to remember the event after it has taken place.
  • Nightmares are essentially bad dreams that occur during REM sleep. Night Terrors on the other hand occur when your child is partially aroused from deep sleep.

If you recognize these symptoms then are a couple of things that you need to be aware of. The exact causes are not known but research has shown a link between night terrors and any of the following symptoms: overtiredness, stress, anxiety and sleep disordered breathing (SDB). I strongly recommend that you visit your doctor to rule out SDB, as a recent study of children with both SDB and Night Terrors were cured of their terrors a few months after treatment for their breathing problem.

Secondly, it is very important to make sure that your child’s sleeping environment is safe and that you are calm during these episodes. If necessary, you should restrain your little one with a firm but gentle hold, especially if it looks like there is a danger that they might hurt themselves.

If you take note of the time that your child usually has a night terror and awaken them about 15 minutes beforehand, then this is very often enough to prevent it from happening in the first place.

What is the difference between night terror in toddlers and nightmares? 


Nightmares occur when your child is woken while having a bad dream. Children often find it hard to go back to sleep after a nightmare as they usually recall the contents of the dream and are afraid. Giving your child a comforting hug and then settling back to sleep is usually quick.

Nightmares can occur in children of any age and are most likely to happen during the latter part of the sleep such as in the early morning. This is when Rapid Eye Movement (REM) or Dream Sleep usually occurs.

Nightmares can reflect worries that your child might be having during the day and it might be useful to talk to about this with them. This article does not talk too much about nightmares. I am focusing on night terrors, in children specifically.

Night Terrors

Night terrors occur when children are partially aroused from deep sleep. They are not quite awake yet not totally asleep.

Throughout the night terror your child’s “mind” remains asleep, whereas the “body” looks awake and facial expressions are very emotional. Your child may scream and appear terrified, usually not recognizing the parents.

It will be difficult if not impossible to reassure your child and they may try to run away or push away those trying to console. Night terrors do not arise from REM sleep and are under the group of Non-REM sleep disorders.

Usually your child does not remember having the night terror the next morning. If they do it is usually only the final moments of the night terror.

Night terror in toddlers  tend to occur in  the younger years and are usually outgrown by the end of primary school age. Like nightmares, there are usually no long-term psychological effects.

There are rare occasions that night terror in toddlers persist into adulthood. They can be much easily managed then.

How can I comfort my child who has night terrors?

The most important thing you can do is simply be there in the room with them and talk in a calm voice. There are a few things you can try to minimize the episode but don’t get disheartened if nothing seems to be working. Sometimes there is simply nothing you can do except wait it out.

What does my child see?

When your child is experiencing a night terror they can be seeing a variety of things. From my experience it is usually a sensation more than a visual thing.

A friend narrates that she has had thousands of night terrors since her first one almost 30 years ago.She  remembers almost none of them, save for the last few seconds.

Because the night terrors come from a stage of sleep that does not create dreams there is usually nothing visually going on. As your child comes out of the night terror its almost like they coming through the stages of sleep and begin to visualize as they come out of it.


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