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4 Things You Can Do To Alleviate Night Terrors In Toddlers

Every parent has been woken up in the middle of the night because their little one had a bad dream. You do the half-awake shuffle to their room to settle them back in their bed and then do the “I pray I can get back to sleep” shuffle on your way back to bed. 

If you’re lucky, everyone falls right back to sleep. Parents who have children that experience night terrors know these are a little different. Your little one may be crying out, upset, or even sleepwalking, but the difference is that they don’t wake up and after a little while, settle into a calm sleep again. 

If you are new to night terrors, they can cause a lot of distress for parents. Luckily, your child will probably have no memory of the events of the night before. Keep reading to learn more about night terrors and different ways to alleviate them. 

What Are Night Terrors?

If your child wakes up in the middle of the night screaming and flailing or stiffening their arms while staying asleep, they may be experiencing a night terror. Also known as sleep terrors, night terrors are episodes where a child shows signs of intense fear while still sleeping. 

They may scream out or flail, but they are still asleep and aren’t usually responsive to comfort. These episodes don’t last very long, and when they finish, your child will go back to sleeping peacefully.

Night terrors are known as parasomnia, which also includes sleepwalking. Parasomnia is a sleep disorder that includes unusual movements or behaviors that can disrupt your child’s sleep. These events can be a little alarming at first, but developing a better understanding of them may help put you more at ease.

The Difference Between Night Terrors And Nightmares

The terms nightmare and night terrors are often used interchangeably, but in fact, they are quite different. Nightmares are scary dreams. Usually, if your child has a nightmare, they will wake up and run to your room or call out for you. 

During a night terror, you may hear them call out, but they won’t wake up. Nightmares can feel very real to children. They may even remember them in the morning and share them with you, but after a night terror, they usually won’t even remember having one. 

If your child runs to you during the night because they had a bad dream, you may have to take them back to their own bed and help them settle down. If they’re afraid of monsters in their dreams, you can help them send the monsters away. They may have trouble getting back to sleep, but walking them back to their own bed and making them comfortable will help them fall back asleep easier. 

What Causes Night Terrors?

Everyone goes through different sleep cycles during the night. We go between REM sleep, or Rapid Eye Movement, which is when we dream, and non-REM which is deep sleep. 

Usually, the transition between these two sleep cycles is seamless in normal sleep. However, sometimes kids can get “stuck” between the two. When this happens, they can become frightened and experience a night terror. 

Who Is More At Risk For Night Terrors?

Children between the ages of three and seven are the most susceptible to night terrors. If your child is experiencing them, they can seem scary, but they are not harmful. Usually, kids grow out of night terrors by the time they get to their teen years. Of course, if you have any questions about your child’s health, never hesitate to reach out to their doctor for prevention tips.  

Genetics can play a role in whether or not a child will get night terrors. Did any of their family members experience them? This may be why your child gets them too. There are also a few triggers that can put kids at higher risks to experience night terrors:

  • Sleep deprivation
  • Too much caffeine during the day
  • Sleep apnea
  • Illness or fever (not as common of a cause)
  • Noisy environment (again, not quite as common)

Symptoms Of Night Terrors

Night terrors can be pretty upsetting, especially if your child has one for the first time, but again, they are normally not a sign of anything more serious. They may just give you a jolt of adrenaline you definitely didn’t need in the middle of the night.

If your child is experiencing a night terror, they may have different reactions. The biggest sign is they show signs of panic or terror. Here are some common signs your child is having night terrors:

  • Sitting up in bed
  • Screaming
  • Crying
  • Kicking
  • Jerking
  • Thrashing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Rapid breath
  • Sweating
  • Dilation of pupils
  • Tensing muscles

Usually, these symptoms only last for a few seconds up to a few minutes. You’ll probably want to provide comfort, but trying to wake them up or constrain them may make it worse for both of you. The best thing you can do in these situations is stay calm. 

Try standing at their bedroom door and make sure they don’t fall off the bed or otherwise hurt themself. It’s not easy, but letting them get through it and monitoring them from afar is often the best course of action.

How To Alleviate Night Terrors

You’re probably wondering if there’s anything you can do to stop these night terrors for your child. While you can’t stop them in the moment, there are things you can do to help your child have better sleep and potentially prevent them from happening in the first place. 

1. Adequate Sleep

The number one thing you can do for your child is help them get the appropriate amount of sleep. We get it, kids fight sleep almost as much as they fight their green veggies, so it can be tough making sure they hit those hours. 

Kids who are three to five years old should get between 10-13 hours of sleep, and six to thirteen year olds should get 9-11 hours. These hours can be split between daytime and nighttime sleep. 

If you suspect your child is not getting enough sleep, and that is what’s causing their night terrors, you can start a sleep log. Tracking their sleeping times for a few weeks, and noting if and when they are experiencing any night terrors may help you determine if lack of sleep is playing a part.

2. Create A Relaxing Bedtime Routine

If it’s hard for your child to fall asleep, creating a relaxing bedtime routine can help. This can include a warm bath and dimming the lights and turning off any high-action shows or games an hour before bed. 

Reading a story before bed is always a great way to wind down after a long day. You can have Grandma read them their favorite book, even if she lives far away. Just open Caribu for a video-call and your little one can listen to Grandma’s soothing voice. 

Once your child is nice and relaxed and you have looked under the bed to ensure there are no monsters, grab their favorite stuffy or toy to help them feel calm and alleviate nighttime fears. It is very natural for preschoolers to have a stuffed animal to sleep with. It is also normal for school-aged kids, even if they don’t want to brag about it on the playground. 

3. Reduce A Child’s Stress

Even though we want to, we can’t take away stress completely for our kids. When night terrors are most common at three to seven years old, there are so many new experiences they are going through. New schools, meeting new friends, learning to read and write, these are big years! What we can do is help them learn how to handle extra stress so it doesn’t lead to higher levels of anxiety. 

You can help them find the words to express how they are feeling during the day. Maybe they need to sit out and take some time by themselves. Teaching them to move their bodies when they feel extra stress is a great way to burn off the energy. Finally, providing them with healthy meals and snacks can help their body process the stress better.

4. Talk To Your Child’s Pediatrician

If you have any concerns about your child’s night terrors, especially if they are causing sleep disturbances on a regular basis, you should talk to your child’s doctor. 

Their pediatrician may ask you to keep a log for a week or two to track different aspects of your child’s daily and nightly habits. This can help the pediatrician get a better understanding of how to help your child.

Sleep Safe And Sound

Night terrors can be alarming the first time your child experiences one. Once you understand what is causing these episodes, and knowing that they are harmless, even though it may not seem like it, can help put you more at ease. 

The biggest thing you can do for your child to help alleviate night terrors is by focusing on their sleeping habits. Making sure they get the sleep they need can help reduce or eliminate night terrors. 

Reading or playing a relaxing game together with someone you love is a great way to end a busy day! Caribu is here to make those amazing memories happen (regardless of distance) and ultimately, help your child sleep better.


Night Terrors – StatPearls | NCBI Bookshelf

Night Terrors (for Parents) | Nemours Kidshealth

How Much Sleep Do Babies and Kids Need? | Sleep Foundation