It’s the middle of the night and your baby screams out in terror. You leap from your bed and run to them. They seem awake, but they won’t stop screaming. You try to soothe them, but it only makes it worse.
If this sounds familiar, your baby may be experiencing night terrors. Though uncommon in infants, babies as young as 18 months may experience them.
Watching your little one scream and thrash can be unsettling, to say the least, but the good news is that night terrors are a lot more scary for you than they are for your baby. In fact, your baby will likely have no memory of them in the morning.
Babies and children grow out of night terrors eventually, but until then, there may be things you can do to help reduce the occurrence of these sleep disturbances, and to manage them if or when they occur.
Keep reading to learn how to identify and prevent night terrors, plus what to do if your baby experiences one.
As a parent, you know that the phrase “sleep like a baby” doesn’t actually describe the way most babies sleep. Between nighttime feedings, diaper changes, and baby sleep cycles, you’re likely already very familiar with nighttime wakings. But during a night terror, although you’ll be wide awake, your baby is technically still asleep.
The first time your baby has a night terror, you may initially think they are sick or experiencing a nightmare. But night terrors and nightmares are different.
Night terrors start early in the nighttime sleep cycle when your baby moves from deep to light sleep. They can last for a few minutes or up to 45 minutes, and your baby will remain asleep during and after the episode. Nightmares happen later in the sleep cycle, and your baby may or may not wake up because of a nightmare.
The following behaviors and symptoms may be a sign that your baby is having a night terror:
- thrashing and restlessness
- open, glassy eyes
- a racing heartbeat
- rapid breathing
Your baby may also not respond to your attempts to comfort or soothe them. That’s because, even if their eyes are open, they are still asleep.
After the night terror, your baby will fall back into deep sleep and will be unable to recall the episode in the morning, no matter how vividly you remember it. This is untrue of nightmares, which your baby may remember upon awakening.
Night terrors usually occur only once a night.
When do babies start to dream?
Newborns, infants, and toddlers get a lot of sleep. These hours spent sleeping may be filled with dreams, as they have more REM sleep than adults do. Dreams occur during the REM cycle.
However, scientists don’t know when babies start to dream, or what those dreams may entail.
Once your child starts to develop a vocabulary, you can try asking them about their dreams. You may be surprised by the answers you get. And remember, the concept of a dream can be hard to grasp, so you may need to come up with creative ways to explain dreaming to your child, such as, “Did you see any pictures in your head while you were sleeping?”
The daily life of a baby is full of stimulation. Normal things in your day are still new and exciting for baby. And because your baby’s central nervous system (CNS) is still developing, all of that stimulation can cause the CNS to become too stimulated. That overstimulation may contribute to night terrors.
Your baby may also be more susceptible to night terrors if night terrors run in your family. A family history of sleepwalking
Other things that can increase the risk for your baby having a night terror include:
- taking certain medications
- being overtired
- new sleep surroundings
- poor sleep quality
At what age can night terrors start?
It’s actually rare for infants to have night terrors — most often, the crying young babies do in the night isn’t related to night terrors. However, you may begin noticing them when your baby is around 18 months old.
Night terrors are most common in preschool-age children, around 3 to 4 years old. They can occur in children up until around age 12 and should stop once your child reaches their teen years and their nervous system is better developed.
One alarming thing about night terrors is that there isn’t much you can do for your child when they occur. It may be difficult to watch them experience the symptoms that accompany the night terror, but remind yourself that they will not recall it in the morning.
Never wake your child during a night terror. This can confuse them and make it much more difficult to get them to go back to sleep.
Instead, observe your child during a night terror without waking them. This may be hard to do, but it’s the best thing you can do to help your child.
It’s also important to make sure no surrounding objects in your baby’s crib can hurt them. If night terrors occur after your toddler has transitioned from a crib to a bed, you’ll want to make sure they do not get up and hurt themselves during a night terror.
Your child will calm down after a short period of time and resume their regular sleep cycle.
If your baby has a history of night terrors, make sure all caregivers know about your baby’s night terrors. Give them instructions for what to do if you’ll be out at night.
Night terrors may be scary, but they shouldn’t be cause for panic. You may want to talk to your baby’s doctor if you suspect they are experiencing something other than night terrors, like seizures, or if your baby seems fearful or unsettled throughout the night or even during the day.
You may also want to contact the doctor if your baby has other problematic sleep habits or snores during sleep. These may be signs of other conditions that need to be evaluated.
If you have difficulty establishing regular sleep habits at home, working with a sleep consultant may be useful. Overtiredness and poor sleeping conditions may contribute to the night terrors, and finding someone to help you implement a change in sleep practices at home may reduce the occurrence of night terrors.
If you do talk to your baby’s doctor, make sure to write down symptoms, sleep schedules, and other routines or unusual behaviors to share with them.
Getting your baby to sleep through the night is one of the great mysteries of parenthood, but a well-rested baby may be less likely to have night terrors.
While this may sound like an impossible task, there are things you can do to encourage baby to get more zzz’s.
For starters, it’s important to know how much sleep your little one needs. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests infants 4 to 12 months need 12 to 16 hours of sleep a day, including naps, 1- to 2-year-olds need 11 to 14 hours of sleep per day.
But how can you get your baby to sleep for that long, especially if they are going through a developmental leap, are sick or teething, or have FOMO sleep aversions?
One way to help your baby get more sleep is to introduce a consistent bedtime routine. The routine should be simple enough that any caregiver can do it, and something that’s manageable for you to do each night.
For example, your routine could involve brushing baby’s teeth or gums, reading them a book, and then tucking them in at the same time every night.
For best results, start the bedtime routine before your baby starts rubbing their eyes, which is a sign of overtiredness.
There may be other ways to help a child through night terrors. In a 2018 paper for Evolution, Medicine & Public Health, researchers hypothesized that co-sleeping with a child over the age of 1 may help reduce night terrors. Keep in mind that the article does not have significant evidence to support the hypothesis and that the AAP recommends that babies under 1 sleep in their own bed, such as a crib.
Will my baby continue having night terrors?
Your baby may have night terrors only once, or they may recur over days or weeks. Try to create a calming environment before and during bedtime to help reduce the risk.
There’s not much you can do during your baby’s night terror other than keeping the sleeping space safe. And implementing routines that promote healthy sleep habits may help reduce the chance of your baby having a night terror in the future.
While night terrors can be stressful and, in some cases, frightening for the parent, they are generally harmless for your child. If you think their nighttime distress may be caused by something other than night terrors, talk to your baby’s pediatrician.