The thought of your toddler screaming or thrashing around while he’s asleep is upsetting, but there are ways to manage this toddler sleep problem
Most common from around three years old, night terrors tend to happen when your child’s been asleep for a few hours, and can see him sitting up, looking scared, thrashing about and even screaming.
The cause? Either he’s been woken from a deep sleep – perhaps by a sudden noise, excitement or anxiety – or he’s having more deep sleep than usual, maybe because he’s overtired, unwell or on certain medication. Terrors are also more likely when there’s a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking, especially on your partner’s side.
While it’s frightening to see, rest assured that your toddler isn’t aware and doesn’t remember what’s happening. It’s not a sign of a serious problem and he should eventually grow out of it – night terrors happen less frequently in children over eight.
Terrors are also more likely when there’s a family history of night terrors or sleepwalking, especially on your partner’s side
Wake him when the terror finishes
While it’s tempting to wake your toddler to calm him, instead wait until the episode ends. Just clear anything he could knock around him.
‘He may not recognise you if you wake him during it and become more agitated,’ says paediatric nurse and health visitor Dawn Kelly. ‘Once he’s completely out of the attack, it’s safe to wake him.’
Check he’s fully conscious before letting him go back to sleep – that way, you break the deep sleep cycle that could lead to another night terror.
Look for a pattern
If your toddler’s having an attack at the same time each evening, try and stop the terrors before they happen.
‘Gently wake your child about 15 minutes beforehand,’ says Dawn. ‘Keep him awake for a few minutes then let him nod off again. This can disrupt his sleep pattern enough to stop the terrors without affecting sleep quality.’
Think about his sleep habits
Overtiredness tends to be the main cause of night terrors, so if your child’s experiencing them, have a look at his sleep pattern. ‘Perhaps he needs a daytime nap or more sleep in general,’ says Dawn.
Talk to your doctor
While night terrors aren’t something to overly worry about, there are times when it’s good to see your GP. ‘If they’re happening several times a night or most evenings, your doctor can check whether there’s a treatable cause, such as a breathing issue,’ says Dawn.