First things first, night terrors are often more frightening for parents than children. They’re also very common, with 88% of children suffering a night terror before the age of 11. Night terrors belong to the same group of sleep behaviours as sleep walking and sleep talking and aren’t harmful to children at all.
We spoke to sleep expert James Wilson AKA The Sleep Geek to understand how to identify a night terror, as opposed to a bad dream.
Nightmare or night terror?
During a night terror, little ones may scream, cry out, sweat, thrash around and – most disconcertingly for their parents – appear to be wide awake. The episodes can last a while, until your child moves into a different phase of sleep. In the morning, he won’t remember a thing, but you might well feel drained – and a bit tired!
The key difference, James says, is that “children can remember nightmares but night terrors they don’t recall at all.”
It might feel unnatural but trying to wake a child from a terror isn’t advised. Instead, stay with him and wait until he calms down and drop off back to sleep. It’s hard to wake a child from a night terror and may agitate them further.
Can babies have night terrors?
Night terrors are most common in toddlers around 3 to 4 years old, however you may notice them in your child as young as 18 months. Night terrors in babies are rare, and their crying at night is usually due to other factors.
Can we blame the pandemic?
Sleep disorders have been on the rise for everyone, not just children since the beginning of the pandemic. According to James our increased anxiety levels can disturb sleep patterns and for our children, lockdowns and not attending their usual settings can impact on how easily they sleep: “Sleep issues are heightened by stressful situations and for children, sleep problems can occur when there’s a change in routine. We saw it last Spring in the first lockdown when children weren’t falling asleep then again in January.”
How to help night terrors in toddlers
According to the NHS, most children grow out of night terrors before they are 8 years old but just how can you break the cycle while they are happening regularly? James says it possible to ‘re-set’ your child’s sleep rhythm to avoid a terror happening: “Night terrors happen at the same time each night. 20 minutes before a night terror is due to begin, go into your child’s bedroom and disturb them. Rustle around for a few minutes just enough so they are almost woken up. This will mean they come out of a sleep cycle and the night terror won’t happen. Do this for five to seven nights to break the pattern.”
Environmental factors can also be a factor: your child may well be too warm as James tells us: “We overheat our children with heavy duvets, blankets and soft toys in the bed. Temperature can trigger a night terror so it’s worth thinking about that.” It might be worth dressing your little one in thinner pyjamas and keeping the covers light to see whether this makes a difference.
A calm and consistent bedtime routine can also help to soothe children and allow their body temperature to drop so they’re not climbing into bed wired and warm. James suggests: “Reduce stimulation before bed. Make sure you have a wind-down routine which will lead to your child’s body temperature gradually dropping and he or her feeling relaxed ready for bedtime.” A calm bath time and gentle bedtime story can help here, as can dimming the lights and keeping screens to a minimum.