Night Terrors vs Nightmares in Toddlers

Night Terrors vs Nightmares in Toddlers

Learn about nightmares and night terrors that your toddler may be experiencing.

Night Terrors vs Nightmares in Toddlers

It is absolutely heartbreaking to wake up in the middle of the night and hear your child screaming and crying. Nightmares or night terrors are some of the most common causes of nighttime waking in toddlers. In fact, they can happen to anyone and can happen to toddlers who have the best sleep habits. It is important to know the difference between night terrors and nightmares, and what to do if your child has one, so that if your child ever has experiences with either you can help them safely and help them get back to sleep. 

What Are Night Terrors in Toddlers?

Night terrors (also known as sleep terrors) are defined by the Mayo Clinic as episodes of screaming, intense fear and flailing while still asleep. Night terrors occur typically during the first few hours of sleep during the night when your child is in their deep sleep stage. Sleep terrors can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. But a more severe episode can last up to 45 minutes. Night terrors usually happen in children ages 4-12, but some have been reported in toddlers as young as 18 months old. Some kids can inherit the tendency to have night terrors, 80% of children experiencing night terrors have family members who have experienced them as well. Typically they are not a cause for concern, but if night terrors are affecting your child’s sleep or posing a safety concern, definitely talk to your pediatrician or a sleep specialist. 

Symptoms of Night Terrors

  • A frightened scream or loud yelling
  • Sitting up in bed and appears frightened 
  • A wide-eyed stare, yet not actually awake
  • Heavy breathing, racing pulse, sweating
  • Kicking and thrashing around
  • Inconsolable, yet hard to awaken
  • Climbing out of bed and moving around the house

Causes of Night Terrors

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Overtiredness
  • Stress
  • Illness or fever
  • Change to schedule, sleep interruptions, or travel

How to Calm Night Terrors

If your child has a night terror, it is typically going to be hardest on you. It is absolutely heartbreaking to see your child so upset. The best thing you can do for them is wait it out and ensure that they won’t get hurt from thrashing around. Typically they are very short and your child will fall back asleep on their own. Waking your child up from their night terror can cause them to be confused and disoriented. And they will have a harder time falling back to sleep. Talk to your doctor if it seems that your child is having a hard time falling asleep or back to sleep after a night terror.

There isn’t a magic cure for night terrors, but you can try a few different things to help prevent them in your child. Help your child get enough rest and help them avoid getting overtired by ensuring that they don’t stay up too late. A soothing, calm regular bedtime routine can reduce stress and set your child up for a good night’s sleep. A regular bedtime helps lead to quality sleep which can help mitigate night terrors. I have an entire post about toddler bedtime routine that is super helpful in setting your kiddo up for a good night sleep. 

What are Nightmares in Toddlers?

Almost every child will have some sort of nightmare or bad dream during their early years. Toddlers can try to express them to you before they can say many words. Nightmares typically peak around preschool age as children start to develop a fear of the dark. Nightmares are different from night terrors because they happen during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep or at the time when our brains are most active. They usually happen during that later part of the night or early morning hours when REM sleep stages are longer. When toddlers wake up screaming from a nightmare, the images and dreams are still very fresh in their minds and can seem very real. Oftentimes children can have a hard time falling back to sleep after a nightmare because the images feel so real to them.

Signs of Nightmares

  • Waking up screaming or crying
  • Feeling afraid upon waking up
  • Remembering what happened in the nightmare
  • Crying or upset in their sleep

Causes of Nightmares

  • Overtiredness
  • Stress or change – moving, new sleep environment, new sibling
  • Reaction to traumatic events – natural disaster, accident or injury
  • Overactive imagination – watching a scary show or reading a scary book

How to Deal With Nightmares in Toddlers

The best way to calm a child that has had a nightmare is to go to them quickly and give them lots of positive reassurance. Acknowledge that they had a nightmare and let them know you understand how scary it can be. Giving a lot of reassurance to your child and making sure they know that you are there for them and will never let anything happen to them is huge in helping calm your child after a nightmare.

If your child feels better having a light on be sure to encourage them that it’s totally fine to have a nightlight in their room. You can also try to help prevent nightmares in your child by having a light and relaxing bedtime routine and encouraging sweet dreams. Try to keep any discussions of nightmares or scary things during the day and away from bedtime to keep those thoughts out of their mind.

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