Night Terrors In Toddlers: Don’t Panic! Do These 7 Things.

Author Image By Paula McLaren - Norland Nurse NNEB RSH •  Updated: 12/13/23 •  Sleep / Sleep Tips

Night terrors are among some of the common night disturbances that young children can experience along with nightmares and sleepwalking.

And as alarming as they can be for you, night terrors in toddlers are completely normal.

With first-hand experience dealing with night terrors, combined with over 40 years of childcare experience… I want to share all of my tips, tricks, and golden nuggets of information so you understand what night terrors are, what causes them, and how you can help your children through them… Let’s get started.

Night Terrors In Toddlers Featured Image

Understanding Night Terrors In Toddlers

I know from first-hand experience how disturbing night terrors can be for a parent, as my son suffered from night terrors as a toddler. 

It is quite bizarre to see your child seemingly awake and in apparent distress… but not acknowledge your presence and try to push you away if you attempt to comfort them. 

However, night terrors in children are more common than you think, and there are strategies to help you and your little one rest easy.

What Age Do Night Terrors Start?

Night terrors are most common in children between the ages of 3 and 8 years old, peaking between the ages of 4 and 6 years.

Occasionally, night terrors can start in toddlers as young as 1-2 years old. But most children will outgrow their night terror episodes by adolescence.

Are Night Terrors Common?

Yes, night terrors are more common than most people think. Statistically night terrors are more frequent in younger children, with up to 35% of children aged 1.5 years old experiencing them

They can occur sporadically or frequently, with the frequency of night terrors varying from child to child.

If your toddler experiences night terrors, it is important to remember that they are not harmful and will generally resolve on their own. My son experienced them for a few weeks only and then they stopped completely.

Looking to get your little one to sleep quickly and effortlessly? Check out my Bedtime and Nap Cheat Sheet and master the art of making daytime naps and bedtimes as seamless as possible.

7 Ways To Prevent and Manage Night Terrors In Toddlers

Night terrors can be distressing for both you and your child. I know I was very concerned when I witnessed my son having them! 

And while toddler sleep terrors usually go away on their own, there are steps you can take to prevent and manage them.

Here are my top remedies for night terrors in toddlers:

Preventing and Managing Night Terrors In Toddlers
  1. Bedtime Routine. Establishing a relaxing bedtime routine can help your child fall asleep more easily. Try to stick to a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, even on weekends.
  2. Create a Calm Environment. Make sure your child’s bedroom is a calm and comfortable environment. Keep the room cool, quiet, and dark. Avoid stimulating activities before bedtime and restrict screen use in the lead-up to bedtime.
  3. Use a White Noise Machine. A white noise machine will make sure your little one is not disturbed by noises that may trigger a night terror.
  4. Avoid Triggers. Identify and avoid any triggers that cause your child’s night terrors. This could include separation anxiety, medications, or a big change that has happened in their routine recently such as starting daycare or preschool, the arrival of a new sibling, or moving house.
  5. Try Putting Your Child to Bed Earlier. If your toddler or preschooler is overtired they are more likely to experience night terrors. Try putting your child to bed earlier to ensure they are getting enough age-appropriate daytime sleep.
  6. Stay Calm and Remain Present. During a night terror the best thing you can do as a parent is to sit quietly by your child until the terror is over to ensure they do not hurt themselves and wait for them to go back to sleep.
  7. Consider Treatment for Night Terrors. In most cases, night terrors do not require treatment. However, there are a couple of medical conditions that can trigger night terrors such as Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Reflux. If your toddler has the following symptoms, you should talk to your doctor about treatment plans (usually therapy or medication) to address any underlying issues:

Remember, night terrors are usually not a cause for concern and more often than not, will go away on their own. 

What Are The Signs Of Night Terrors In Toddlers?

If you are trying to determine if your toddler is experiencing night terrors here are some specific signs to look out for:

Toddler Stalling Bedtime - Toddler Doesn't Want To Wear Pyjamas and is resisting leaving mum

What Causes Night Terrors In Toddlers?

While the exact cause of night terrors is not fully understood, several factors can trigger them.

  1. Disturbances in your child’s sleep cycle are the most common causes of night terrors. These disturbances can be caused by loud noises, bright lights, or being overtired. 
  2. Night terrors in toddlers usually occur during the first few hours of sleep, when your child is in a deep sleep. During this time, the brain is still active, but the body is not. This can cause your child to experience vivid hallucinations, which can be frightening and confusing. However, your toddler is unlikely to remember them when they wake.
  3. There is a strong likelihood that night terrors can run in families too. So if you or your partner have experienced sleep terrors or sleepwalking, it’s highly likely your child will experience sleep terrors too. But not always.

It’s important to note that the causes of night terrors are often complex and multifactorial, and may involve a combination of genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. Sometimes, you may think that a night terror has happened for no reason at all.

What Is The Difference Between Toddler Night Terrors And Nightmares?

Nightmares and night terrors are both common sleep disturbances in children, but they differ in several ways. The table below summarizes the main differences between the two:

NightmaresNight Terrors
Age RangeNightmares are common between 3 and 6 years old.Night terrors are common between 3 and 8 years old.
How Common?50% of children report frequent nightmares6% of children are reported to experience night terrors
In What Sleep Stage Do They Occur?Light sleep (REM)Deep sleep
CharacteristicsVivid, unpleasant dreams, feeling afraid, waking up cryingThrashing, screaming, and agitation, but not fully awake 
Time of NightNightmares are more common in the early hours of the morning.Night terrors usually occur in the first few hours of sleep.
Awake & CommunicativeYesNo
MemoryCan rememberUnlikely to remember
Underlying CausesNightmares can happen for any reason, but commonly reflect developing imaginations, inner fears, anxiety, or frightening experiences, like watching a scary film.Night terrors are not associated with emotional problems but can run in families. They can also be related to sleepwalking or overtiredness.

Nightmares are vivid, distressing dreams that happen during light sleep, or REM sleep, and often occur in the early morning. When a child has a nightmare, they will wake up and remember the dream. They may want to discuss it with you and might have difficulty falling back asleep.

On the other hand, toddler night terrors are episodes of partial waking, occurring during deep sleep. They commonly happen in the first half of the night and are less frequent than nightmares. Children may thrash, scream, or sleepwalk during a night terror. Even though they seem frightened, they are not fully awake and can’t be comforted.

Additionally, children experiencing night terrors are usually unable to remember the episode, unlike nightmares which are often remembered by the child. 

Although both can be distressing for children and adults, night terrors generally have less emotional impact on your toddler because they can’t recall the event.

Toddler Separation Anxiety At Night - Crying hugging mum

Frequently Asked Questions About Night Terrors In Toddlers

Looking for more information about night terrors in toddlers? Here are the most frequently asked questions answered just for you.

Q: What are the symptoms of night terrors in children?

A: Night terrors in children can be scary for parents to witness. Symptoms may include screaming, sweating, and thrashing around in bed. Children can be difficult to wake up during an episode and may not remember it the next day.

Q Are night terrors in toddlers a sign of mental illness?

A. No, night terrors are not a sign of mental illness or epilepsy in toddlers. Bear in mind that night terrors may become worse if your little one is unwell or has a high fever.

Q: What can help stop night terrors in toddlers?

A: There is no one-size-fits-all solution for stopping night terrors, but there are some strategies that may be helpful. Address any fears your little one may be experiencing, keep bedtimes calm and consistent, and avoid overtiredness.

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Author Image Bio
Paula McLaren is the founder of Teething to Tantrums and a highly qualified childcare expert with over 40 years of experience as a Norland Nanny. She holds a BA (Hons) in Early Years Development & Learning (0-6 Years) and the prestigious Norland Diploma. Paula has worked as a night nanny, run a successful daycare center in London, and helped raise countless children using her tried and tested developmental and guidance methods.

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