Help, My Toddler is Having Night Terrors!

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Your child wakes up screaming in the middle of the night. He’s thrashing around, inconsolable and yelling. You try to wake him up, but he just keeps going. Then, just as suddenly, he drops back to sleep. What just happened? A nightmare? Nope.

It’s a night terror or sleep terror, says Stephen Sheldon, M.D. Dramatic sleep disruptions, they can happen at night or during naps. “A sleep terror is a partial arousal from deep sleep,” says Sheldon. “The brain’s wake system turns on, but the sleep system doesn’t turn off.”

What causes night terrors?

Night terrors usually begin between 18 months and two years old. They occur because children sleep very deeply, making it possible for something to trigger their brains’ waking system without completely shutting off the sleeping system, putting them in a partially-awake state. The brain’s waking system can be triggered by external stimulus, like a noise, or by something internal, like a fever or being stressed or overtired.

Is my toddler having a night terror?

While most children will have at least one night terror during their childhood, some can be prone to them, even having several during one night. How can you tell if your child is having a night terror? Usually, night terrors occur during the first half of the night, and they often start with a piercing scream.

Your child might be sweating, thrashing about, mumbling or yelling or talking and have dilated pupils. Night terrors last between two and five minutes, and then, the child goes back to sleep, with no memory of what happened.

Are night terrors harmful?

While night terrors can be incredibly frightening for adults, they’re harmless to children. “Night terrors are not abnormal. They do not harm the child. They do not cause brain damage,” says Sheldon.

Should I comfort my child during a night terror?

While it is sometimes possible to wake a child from a night terror, it can often be difficult. “If the parent tries to soothe the child, it may get worse,” says Sheldon. “The child may push the parent away, yelling ‘no, no, no’ or even fight the parent.” Instead, just make sure your child is safe, and isn’t at risk for falling out of bed or injuring herself.

Can night terrors be prevented?

Not really, though certain conditions, like having a fever, excessive stress, or lack of sleep, make it more likely for a child to have a night terror. Usually, night terrors will decrease in frequency as your child gets older, though they could persist into adolescence. If you’re concerned or your child’s night terrors are becoming disruptive, call your child’s pediatrician, says Sheldon.

By Stephen Sheldon, M.D., board member of and head of sleep medicine at Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago

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