When your toddler is in the middle of a night terror, it can make you feel helpless. But there are things you can do to help — both in the moment and to prevent them going forward.
If you’ve never witnessed them, night terrors in toddlers can seem frightening at first. Your toddler might scream, cry, thrash, or throw themselves off their bed. They will not accept soothing, and they won’t remember any of it in the morning.
Your toddler may demonstrate extreme behavior and seem terrified during an episode like this, even though they’re still technically asleep when it happens.
Night terrors can be very unsettling for parents and caregivers. If you feel like you don’t know how to help your little one, don’t fret: You’re not alone. Here’s what we know about the causes of night terrors in toddlers and how to handle them.
A toddler who is having a night terror might:
- sit up in bed or get out of bed
- scream, cry, or yell
- kick, punch, or thrash
- have an elevated heart rate
- have rapid breathing
- be sweaty
- have their eyes open but are unresponsive to your soothing
- appear terrified
- calm down and fall back asleep without any effort on your part
They occur during non-rapid eye movement (non-REM) sleep stages, which means a toddler experiencing a night terror is between a state of wakefulness and sleep.
They can begin at about age 3 and can continue until about age 12. Night terrors in toddlers are related to central nervous system (CNS) immaturity. Children tend to outgrow night terrors as the nervous system matures.
Night terrors and nightmares are not the same.
While night terrors are arousals that occur during non-REM sleep, nightmares occur during REM, or dream, sleep. Night terrors commonly occur in the first few hours after bedtime, whereas nightmares can occur at any time throughout the night.
Your toddler will likely accept soothing when they have woken up from a nightmare and may even be able to answer questions about their bad dream.
Unlike night terrors, your toddler can remember their nightmares the following morning and — if they are verbal — may be able to speak about them.
- Safety first: Ensure that your toddler’s room environment is free of dangerous objects, furniture is tethered to the walls, and blind cords are removed. You may want to consider putting a gate at the top of any stairs.
- Ride it out: Avoid trying to wake your toddler during a night terror, as this can cause further confusion and distress.
- Stay close but don’t interfere: Your toddler may not accept soothing. Offer loving words and stay nearby to make sure they’re safe.
- Go to the bathroom: If your child is potty trained, take them to the toilet. Many toddlers will immediately relax once they have emptied their bladder.
- Stand by until they’re calm: Night terrors in toddlers often resolve on their own within a few minutes, but they can last up to 45 minutes in some cases.
You may be able to prevent night terrors in your toddler by addressing the possible causes of night terrors, like lack of sleep, emotional or physical stress, or elevated body temperature.
Keep your child’s room temperature cool. The ideal sleep environment is no warmer than 68 to 70°F (20 to 21°C). Your toddler should wear no more than two layers of cotton material sleep clothing.
Ensure that your toddler has an age-appropriate sleep schedule. Children between ages 3 and 5 need an average of 11 to 13 hours of sleep in 24 hours. This may be distributed across daytime naps and nighttime sleep.
Implement a consistent, calming bedtime routine that consists of the same relaxing activities done in the same order every night, such as teeth brushing, stories, songs, cuddles, loving words, and then bed.
Encourage your child to empty their bladder before bed if they’re potty trained. Try including a trip to the potty in your consistent bedtime routine.
Avoid caffeine — yes, even chocolate — and screens before bed.
There’s evidence that physical stress (e.g., illness or a tooth infection) and emotional stress (e.g., changing caregivers or starting a new school) can cause night terrors. Do your best to address extra stress to help alleviate your toddler’s night terrors.
Pay attention to the exact timing of your toddler’s night terrors. Try gently rousing them (not fully waking them) about 20 to 30 minutes before they usually have a night terror. This may work to reset their sleep-wake cycles so that they don’t wake at the usual time. Try this for a few days before deciding whether it’s working.
Although melatonin can help children fall asleep, it can also
Some alternative healthcare professionals recommend essential oils like juniper for calming night terrors. There is no evidence that essential oils help night terrors in toddlers.
Some essential oils may be harmful to children, and all essential oils must be used safely to avoid harm. Always consult with your child’s healthcare professional about medications and alternative therapies.
If night terrors are frequent, last longer than 30 minutes, increase in frequency, or are accompanied by other concerning behaviors either during the day or at night, seek the advice of a healthcare professional.
If a healthcare professional has ruled out a medical concern like a sleep disorder, you may want to reach out to a certified sleep professional such as a sleep coach or consultant. A certified sleep professional can help you optimize your toddler’s sleep hygiene and habits and improve the quality of their sleep.
There is evidence that increasing sleep hours over 24 hours can help prevent night terrors in toddlers. A healthcare professional can help you rule out behavioral, lifestyle, and environmental triggers for night wakings.
When should I be concerned about a night terror?
If night terrors are frequent, increase in frequency, or are accompanied by other concerning behavior, seek the advice of a healthcare professional.
Should I wake my child from a night terror?
Avoid trying to wake your child when they’re experiencing a night terror.
Can you prevent night terrors in toddlers?
There are ways to reduce the possibility of night terrors in toddlers, including the following:
- Keep your child’s room temperature cool.
- Encourage them to empty their bladder before bed if they’re potty trained.
- Ensure that they have an age-appropriate sleep schedule.
- Implement a consistent bedtime routine.
- Avoid caffeine and screens before bed.
- Address physical and emotional stress.
- Try gentle rousing 20 to 30 minutes before they usually have a night terror.
What age do night terrors start?
While there are reports of night terrors in babies, night terrors usually occur in toddlers, preschoolers, and school-aged children between ages 3 and 12. They’re equally common among genders.
Are night terrors dangerous for toddlers?
Night terrors in toddlers are not inherently dangerous, but it is important to keep toddlers safe during night terrors by keeping their environment safe.
How common are night terrors in toddlers?
Night terrors in toddlers are uncommon. They occur in 3% to 6% of all children.
Night terrors are uncommon in children. Although night terrors can seem terrifying, they’re not usually a cause for concern.
Focusing on healthy sleep hygiene can help, including a sleep-conducive bedroom environment, an age-appropriate sleep schedule, a consistent bedtime routine, and independent sleep.
There are also ways to help prevent night terrors in toddlers, including increasing their overall sleep hours and emptying their bladder before bed.
If your child experiences a night terror, stand by to keep them safe and wait it out until they’re calm and ready to return to sleep. Your toddler will eventually outgrow their night terrors as their nervous system matures.