Toddler Nightmares & Night Terrors: What You Should Know

by Tara Saltzburg

If you have a child who is experiencing nightmares or night terrors, it can be as distressing for you as it is for them. Scary nighttime episodes are extremely common in children, especially during the preschool years, although they can occur in older children and adolescents. Nighttime fears are a part of normal development, as children’s imaginations develop and they start understanding that there are things that exist that can hurt them. If your little one is experiencing scary nighttime interruptions, there are some things you can do to help. Here we’ll dive into toddler nightmares and night terrors as well as tips for dealing with them.

Article Contents:

What Are Toddler Nightmares?

Toddler nightmares are scary, vivid dreams that generally wake your little one up from sleep with intense feeling of fear or dread. Just like nightmares in adults, they can seem extremely real. However, it’s hard for children to separate a nightmare from reality even after they wake up, which can make it  difficult for them to ease back into a peaceful sleep. Nightmares are most prevalent between the ages of 3 and 6, and it’s estimated that between 30% and 90% of children this age experience occasional nightmares and between 5% and 30% experience them often.

Like most dreams, nightmares typically occur in the second part of the night, and when a child wakes up, she usually has full awareness, clear recall, and little or no confusion. Because of this, children are often hesitant and scared to go back to sleep. In some cases, the fear of nightmares is enough for children to fight sleep and employ stall tactics even before bedtime.toddler-nightmares-statistics

Although the exact causes of nightmares is unknown, they sometimes occur after a child sees something that upsets her during the day, whether real or make believe. Household conflict, parental anxiety, or anything else that makes a child more emotionally aware can increase anxiety and the risk of nightmares. Of course, nightmares can also follow a traumatic experience, like being scared by a large dog, being in a car accident, or even just watching the news (which is enough to scare an adult!). In some cases, nightmares can happen completely out of the blue.

The developmental stage of life often is usually reflected in the type of nightmare. Toddlers may have nightmares about being separated from their parents, while young children may have nightmares about monsters, other imagined creatures, or getting lost. As children grow older, they may begin to experience more realistic nightmares like a death or natural disaster.

What Are Toddler Night Terrors?

A night terror occurs when a child is partially awakened from sleep with intense panic, usually manifesting itself as screaming, kicking, sleep walking, thrashing, and/or mumbling. An estimated 1% to 6% of children experience night terrors and they typically occur between the ages of 3 and 12, with a peak onset at age 3 1/2. Boys and girls of all races seem to be affected equally. Night terrors are more common among children who have family members that have been affected by the disorder, but luckily most children will outgrow them by adolescence.

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Most terror episodes last 1-2 minutes, but they can last up to 30 minutes, throughout which, the child cannot be comforted or woken up. In some cases, the child may even be sitting upright in bed with eyes wide open, but will not notice the presence of her parents. Whoa. The good news is that children usually fall back into a deep sleep and have little to no memory of the night terror in the morning (phew!), but in some cases the child will have just a vague recall of the event.

While most of the time they have no specific cause, night terrors can sometimes be a result of stressful life events, fever, sleep deprivation, medications that affect the central nervous system, or recent anesthesia.

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Is This a Nightmare or a Night Terror?

There are several differences between nightmares and night terrors. The most recognizable difference is the child’s awareness. Children experiencing nightmares will wake up and often recall the experience in vivid detail. Because the images are fresh and can seem real, it's natural for them to feel afraid and call out for the comfort of a parent. In the case of nightmares, children are often able to be comforted since there is little to no confusion and they are aware of what’s going on.

When a child experiences a night terror, however, they may thrash, scream, kick, or mumble, but they awake only partially and there is a confused state of awareness. If a parent enters the room, they will likely be unaware of their presence. After the episode, they will fall back into a deep sleep without the help or comfort of a parent or caregiver. They typically have very vague to no recollection of the event when they awaken.

Another difference is the period of sleep in which the experience occurs. There are two main types of sleep: Rapid Eye Movement (REM) and non-rapid eye movement (non-REM). During the REM stage, the brain is extremely active and the vivid imagery can seem as real as the emotions they elicit. Nightmares usually occur later in the night when the REM periods of sleep are longer. Night terrors, on the other hand, occur during non-REM sleep, which is usually in the first couple hours of sleep.

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Tips for Dealing with Toddler Nightmares

After a nightmare episode, your child will need some reassurance in order to feel safe and secure and she will likely call out for the comfort of a parent or caregiver until she’s old enough to cope on her own. Here are some things you can do to reduce the number and intensity of toddler nightmares and give your child (and you) some peace of mind:

  • Get adequate sleep. Ensure your little one is getting enough sleep and try your best to maintain a consistent bedtime and wake up time.
  • Have fun in the dark. Teach your little one that the dark can be fun! Play flashlight tag or have a treasure hunt and search for things that glow in the dark.
  • Provide comfort and reassurance. A parents’ cuddling and TLC is usually necessary for a child to overcome a nightmare experience. Stay with your child for a short period of time following the nightmare to provide the necessary comfort, but try to avoid excess attention or pampering, which can make the issue worse. Listen, be understanding and remind her that nightmares are not real, your home is safe, and you are there for security.
  • Encourage your child to stay in her own bed. It’s important that your child stays in her own bed after a nightmare episode. By staying in her bed instead of climbing into yours, she will be better able to overcome her fears and learn that her bed is safe. If she’s too frightened to stay in her room alone, it’s okay, on occasion, to stay until she falls back asleep. Be aware that doing this too often, however, may make her dependent on you to fall asleep.
  • Flip the script. By providing too much attention and coddling, some children will feel reinforced for being afraid at night. Instead, flip the script and tell your little one how proud you are of her for being brave.
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  • Don’t avoid the nightmare. It’s important to have your child address the nightmare during the day. Allow her to talk about her fears and be sure to listen and be understanding. By allowing your child to talk about the nightmare, you may also be able to determine a theme, especially if the nightmares are occurring frequently. If there is a theme, this could mean there is something bothering her and you will be better equipped to handle it. Additionally, build your little one’s self-confidence by talking about bravery and confronting nightmares. Helping her feel safe and secure during the day will help at nighttime.
  • Keep the bedtime routine happy and fun. Create a relaxing bedtime routine 30 to 60 minutes before bedtime. This may include a relaxing bath, a story, or perhaps a song. Avoid scary TV shows, videos or stories that may add to your child’s fears.
  • Help child cope. When dealing with toddler bad dreams, be creative and find ways to help your little one confront her bedtime fears. Here are some ideas:
    1. Read stories about getting over the dark and nighttime fears
    2. Draw pictures of nightmares then tear them up and throw them away as a symbolic gesture
    3. Talk to your child about the nightmare and have her imagine a different ending to it
    4. Hang a dreamcatcher over the bed which helps catch the “bad dreams”

      When to Call a Physician for Nightmares

      According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, you should consult a physician if you notice any of the following:

      • Your child's nightmares become worse or increase in frequency.
      • Your child's fear interrupts daytime activities.
      • Your child's nightmares are very distressing and repetitious or psychological issues are involved.

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      Tips for Dealing with Night Terrors

      Although night terrors are harmless, they certainly can be scary for parents! When dealing with night terrors in toddlers, remedies that you can employ for nightmares won’t work since the child is unaware of what’s happening during a terror. Instead, the goal is to keep her safe until the episode is over. If your child is experiencing night terrors, keep these tips in mind:

      • Just like nightmares, maintaining a consistent bedtime and wake time is important when dealing with night terrors. These episodes can be triggered by overtiredness, so it’s imperative that your little one is getting the appropriate amount of sleep. In some cases, you may want to consider returning to a daytime nap.
      • Do not try to awaken your child during a night terror. Instead, make soothing comments and hold her if it seems to help her feel better.
      • Try to help your child return to normal sleep.
      • Don’t shake or shout at your child, which may cause her to become more upset.
      • During a night terror, a child can fall down a stairway, run into a wall, or break a window. Try to gently direct her back to bed in order to protect from injury.
      • Prepare babysitters or other caregivers for these episodes, if necessary. Explain what terrors are and how to deal with them to ensure the best outcome for the child and the caregiver.

      When to Call a Physician for Night Terrors

      According to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, you should consult a physician if you notice any of the following:

      • The child has drooling, jerking, or stiffening
      • Terrors are interrupting sleep on a regular basis
      • Terrors last longer than 30 minutes
      • Your child does something dangerous during an episode
      • Other symptoms occur with the night terrors
      • Your child has daytime fears
      • You feel that family stress may be a factor
      • You have other questions or concerns about your child's night terrors

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      Summary

      Do toddlers have nightmares and/or night terrors? Unfortunately, yes. Nighttime episodes can be scary, making it difficult for your little one and you to settle back into a peaceful rest, but remember that these issues are common in children and they’re a normal part of development. When dealing with toddler nightmares, comfort, reassurance and extra TLC are they keys to helping your little one settle and feel secure. Be supportive, understanding, and make a point to talk about the nightmares in the light of day.

      If your little one is experiencing a night terror, it can last for up to 30 minutes and she’ll likely show signs of panic and confusion. Although this can be very scary, it’s important not to wake her or yell at her. Instead, make soothing comments, hold her if it seems to help her feel better, and ensure that she stays safe throughout the experience. Remember that children experiencing night terrors will have little to no recall of the event, and they’ll typically grow out of them by adolescence.

      Please note: This article is informational only and is not intended to replace medical advice.

      XO, Tara

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      Sources

      https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/pediatric-nighttime-fears/nightmares

      https://www.sleepfoundation.org/articles/children-and-bedtime-fears-and-nightmares

      https://www.alaskasleep.com/blog/night-terrors-vs-nightmares-how-to-help-terrified-child

      https://www.chop.edu/conditions-diseases/nightmares-and-night-terrors

      https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/nightmare.html

      https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/guide/nightmares-in-adults#1

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