Night Terrors in Children and Toddlers

It’s been a very busy day. Your three year old has been on the go all day, with barely a short nap. She was upset that her favorite stuffed dog was lost, but she finally fell asleep for the night a half hour ago. You and Daddy are looking forward to some much-needed “adult time.”

Suddenly, you hear your sweet child screaming! Did she fall out of bed? Is she sick? What could be wrong? You get out of bed, put on your robe, and rush to her bedside. She’s sitting bolt upright in her bed, crying as if her heart will break. She’s awake…but no, when you talk to her she’s unresponsive and confused, and her heart is beating full speed ahead. The pupils in her eyes are huge, and she looks terrified and panicky. She’s sweating bullets. What is going on?

You sit by her, talk to her, run your hand over her hair with a “shh shh shh, sweetie, it’s ok” and she lays back down, still crying. Finally, maybe fifteen minutes later, she falls back asleep and it is all over. For tonight. She does this again a few more times in the next few weeks, then never again. Is this some strange disease or malady? Is she bewitched or cursed? Is she doing it deliberately?

If you go through this – and I have – you will wonder what to make of it. Such strange symptoms and the threat seems so real, and yet by morning the child usually have forgotten all about it. It’s as if it didn’t even happen – from their perspective. From yours, you’re exhausted from the worry and confusion.

The Short Answer – Sleep Terror Disorder Basic Information

What’s going on is this: Your child is likely experiencing night terrors. They are what happened when children have sleep terror disorder, a condition in which the child (usually between ages two and eight) wake up about thirty minutes to three and a half hours after being put to bed. They are “waking” out a stage 3 or 4 non rapid eye movement (NREM) part of their sleep cycle. It’s as if they aren’t awake or asleep, but stuck in between.

When children have sleep terror disorder, it isn’t dangerous, and it usually runs its course in a few weeks and never recurs.

How To Help?

Just as above, the best help a parent or babysitter can be when one of their children have sleep terror disorder is to be beside them, holding or rocking them if they are able to, comforting them with words and touch. They can encourage the child to settle back to sleep, and can pat their back or play with their hair or rub their hands, stimulating those smaller nerves and taking the focus off their internal angst.

What Causes Sleep Terror Disorder In Children?

Experts agree that when children have sleep terror disorder, the most common cause is unresolved emotional issues of the day. In the example at the beginning, the child had lost a favorite toy. That’ll do it. Or hearing the parents arguing, or a high fever, or lack of sleep, can also each be a cause of sleep terror disorder in children.