Night terrors in toddlers

Night terrors occur in at least 5 percent of young children, and can start as early as 9 months. These mysterious disturbances happen during deep, non-dreaming sleep. A child in this state will cry, whimper, flail, and even bolt out of bed. Though his eyes may be wide open, he's not awake and isn't aware of your presence. Once the night terror (which can last anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour or more) is over, your child will return to a sound sleep and have no memory of the incident in the morning.

How are night terrors different from nightmares?
Nightmares happen during rapid eye movement (REM) or dream sleep. A child who's had a nightmare is likely to have a fairly clear idea of what scared him, though he probably won't be able to articulate his fright until he's about 2. He may also be afraid to fall back asleep, and in the morning, he'll probably remember that he had a bad dream.

What should I do when my toddler has a night terror?
Of course, your first instinct will be to comfort him, but your efforts will most likely be futile (remember, he's not really awake and he's not aware of your presence). You just have to wait it out and make sure he doesn't hurt himself. Don't speak to him or try to soothe him, and don't try to shake or startle him awake or physically restrain him — all of which could lead to more frantic behavior. In 15 to 20 minutes, your child should calm down, curl up, and fall into a deep sleep again.

Is there anything I can do to prevent night terrors?
There are several steps you can take to reduce the chances that your toddler will have night terrors. First, make sure that he's getting enough sleep, since children who go to bed overtired are more likely to experience these sleep disturbances. To avoid fatigue, extend your toddler's nap time, let him sleep a little later in the morning, or put him to bed earlier at night. And be sure to schedule plenty of time for calming bedtime rituals, such as a bath, a song, a book, and lots of cuddling.

Since night terrors usually occur during the first part of the night, you could also try gently rousing your toddler after he's been asleep for an hour or two — about 15 minutes before the typical episode would start. This should alter his sleep pattern enough to head off the night terror at the pass.



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