How to deal with toddler nightmares

Was your toddler a great sleeper and then suddenly started waking at random times in the night? After months of sleeping, it can be hard for parents to deal with the onset of nightmares and sometimes night terrors.

Kids and night terrors

Night terrors usually occur around the time a child starts preschool but can begin into the early school years. According to the American Academy of Pediatric’s (AAP) website for parents, Healthy Children, a night terror (or sometimes called sleep terror) is categorized when “your preschooler will be in bed, appearing to be awake and upset, perhaps screaming and thrashing, eyes wide open and terrified, but he won’t respond to you.” A night terror is a disruptive sleep behavior and can often be distressing for parents.

How to deal with night terrors

A night terror typically looks as if your child is not himself, which often concerns parents. According to Healthy Children, children do not remember anything about the night waking or night terror. A night terror can often include your child pointing to imaginary objects, kicking, screaming, calling out words or phrases (no, I can’t, I don’t want to) and generally being inconsolable.

Tip: Keep the lights low, speak softly and offer gentle hugs and words to calm your child during a night terror.

The AAP recommends that parents hold the child to protect from self-harm and to offer positive reassurance. Offering words like “you’re OK” and “Mommy and Daddy are here” or similar will help settle your child safely and after 10 to 30 minutes, your child will settle back down and go back to sleep. One of the best remedies for night terror is putting your child to sleep at an earlier time. Lack of sleep, or being overtired, can cause and increase night terrors for your young child.

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The difference between night terrors and nightmares

It can be difficult to tell the difference between a night terror and a nightmare. The main difference is that a young toddler is more likely to experience a nightmare as opposed to a night terror, but it can begin later. The AAP classifies a nightmare as a frightening dream that wakes a child causing him to be afraid and often crying. While a night terror can occur any time of night and typically occurs after only a few hours of sleep, a nightmare often occurs in the second part of the night, during the child’s most intense sleep and dreaming period.

Tip: Avoid watching TV before bedtime to help reduce nightmares.

Children who experience a nightmare often have a difficult time returning to sleep due to anxiety and fears he may or may not be able to express. Unlike a night terror, a child can remember a nightmare and will sometimes talk about it the next day or beyond.

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How to deal with a nightmare

Healthy Children suggests fully waking your child if he is not awake already. Once your child is awake, it’s best to comfort him until he is asleep and then talk about and talk through your child’s fears the next day. Talk to your child’s pediatrician if your child is complaining or having nightmares every night.


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