What are night terrors?

Night terrors are different from nightmares. Night terrors occur in ‘deep sleep’ which is before REM sleep (when dreams/nightmares happen). This means your little one may seem to be awake, but their brain is asleep. You can recognize a night terror if your little one presents these signs:

  • Screaming
  • Thrashing around
  • Getting out of bed and moving about
  • Doesn’t recognize who you are when you try to comfort them
  • Eyes are open, but they are not responsive to what’s happening in real life

Most of the time, your child won’t remember the night terror in the morning. You can check in with your child in the morning to see if there’s anything worrisome or scary they’ve been feeling. Try not to make a big deal about night terrors. Acting concerned could make your child nervous about going to sleep when they otherwise might not be aware of night terrors occurring.

Why do night terrors happen?

Night terrors may be caused by a disturbance to the central nervous system, or by your little one’s emotional state. Contributing factors may be:

  • Overheating
  • Being unwell
  • A significant life event such as moving or starting day-care
  • Anxiety

What can I do if my child is having a night terror?

Let night terrors pass in their own time. Waking a child who is having a night terror could disorient them further. They are more likely to remember the distress of being woken than they are to recall the night terror. Even though it can be distressing to see your child in this state, leaving them be is the best thing to do. You can comfort them once the night terror has passed.

You may notice night terrors occurring at the same time each night. Try to stick to a bedtime, so your child’s sleep cycle is relatively consistent. Fifteen minutes or so before the night terror usually begins, gently wake your child. The theory is that they won’t fall immediately back into a deep sleep, and may skip the night terror.

Make sure your toddler’s bedroom, and the ground in general, is hazard-free. Think about what could be dangerous should your little one walk around the house half-asleep and frightened.

If your child struggles with night terrors multiple times a night, or for a distressing period, chat to your doctor. They can check for underlying sleep issues, and may refer you to a specialist. Consider treatments such as hypnotherapy or child psychology. Calming your child with a relaxing, stable bedtime routine may put them in the best headspace for a terror-free night.

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