Baby / Toddler Night Terrors and Nightmares: Part 1

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Night TerrorsWelcome to part 1 of my Baby / Toddler Night Terrors and Nightmares series where I will discuss the different types of night terrors and nightmares your baby or toddler can have, the age they start, the age they stop, the difference between the two and how you should handle each, because the way you handle each is different. We’ll kick off this series by discussing night terrors (aka sleep terrors).

Night Terrors – What are they?

Many people use the term night terrors to describe a lot of different behavior at night. Whether or not you believe in cry it out or its many variations, Ferber (where the term “ferberizing” comes from) is the director of The Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders in Boston, MA and clears up that there are things called “confusional events” (or partial wakings) and something else called “sleep terrors”. I will describe each of them so you will be able to know the difference. As always, I try to limit too much sleep science talk because it’s really technical (and pretty boring if you are not obsessed with sleep as much as I am), but if you are interested in more I highly recommend reading Ferber’s book who does a thorough job in explaining everything.

You might remember beginning around 4 months old, when we first fall asleep, it’s a transition into the deepest sleep of the whole night. This process takes approximately 30 minutes from bedtime for babies as they go into deep sleep faster than adults. The first sleep cycle lasts about 60 to 90 minutes and your baby (and you) will wake briefly as she transitions into the second sleep cycle, which is also deep sleep. The first few hours of sleep of the night is (supposed to be) the deepest. It is during this transition between sleep cycles that you wake briefly. You might roll over or you might pull the cover up over you. It is usually brief and you go right back to sleep. This is NORMAL to wake briefly. Sometimes, however, this process is not so smooth and not so quick and explains why your baby sometimes wakes up crying. Or, do they?

Confusional events typically happen within the first two sleep cycles or between 1 and 4 hours after bedtime. What happens is part of your mind is trying to go back to sleep and part of your mind is trying to wake up and they are both trying to win. There is a wide spectrum as to how that might play out. Your baby might moan, mumble, fuss, or move around for a few minutes and go right back to sleep. That would be a mild confusional event. This is when most people are sleep talking. People think this is when someone is dreaming, but in reality, this is during a NON-dream state. This explains why my husband doesn’t remember what I’m talking about when I tell him something he said the night before.

If the event is a bit more intense, your toddler might sleep walk. She may walk up to you and seem to see right through you. Her eyes might be open, but she is still mostly asleep. Most kids won’t ever remember this happening. It could be a bit more pronounced such as a child jumping out of bed and moving around the room. She might seem upset or confused and may even say things like “No! Stop!” but not really appear too frightened. She might not recognize you and might push you away if you try to hug or touch her. It will likely be virtually impossible to either wake her or console her.

If your baby or toddler (or you) have a true night terror (or sleep terror), it will be more sudden than a confusional event that builds up gradually. Your child will do something like sit straight up in bed and let out a bloodcurdling scream. Her heart will beat fast and she might be very hot and sweaty. She will probably look very terrified and may be screaming things like “Stop!”, “No!”, “Help!” It usually lasts from 1 to 5 minutes and if she wakes at the end will probably not remember anything. It is rare, but some kids will jump out of bed and run around and “run away” from whatever appears to be chasing her. Again, this is very rare.

Night Terrors – Age they start and stop

Partial wakings and confusional events are normal and happen from birth. The “confusion” comes in when your body’s drive to sleep is met with your body’s drive to wake. An example is when you are asleep and you hear the baby crying. You get up, walk to her room and start to feed her before you are fully awake. You might not even remember how you got into the room. Part of your mind was awake and part of it was asleep. If you are confused, you might go in the bathroom instead of the baby’s room and then wonder what you’re doing up when you hear the baby crying and finally your brain starts to wake up. From birth, there will be times during sleep transitions that your baby’s drive to sleep is being challenged by the drive to wake up and your baby might cry or fuss between sleep cycles. This is why it’s important to not interrupt the process of going back to sleep, if you can help it. We want the drive to sleep to win. But, just as an alarm clock is meant to wake you up fully, we, parents, wake our babies up by getting them up too soon, sometimes.

True night or sleep terrors most often happen to adolescents and preadolescents (so 10 to 18 years old), though younger kids might have similar events and of course, everyone is unique. The good thing is that most likely if your baby or toddler appears to be having a night terror, most likely it is a confusional event in which he is not truly frightened. And, in either case, they typically don’t remember either.

Night Terrors – How long they last

Confusional events and night terrors last from a few minutes to up to 40 minutes and typically not longer than that. These are NOT dreams and explains why your child won’t even remember them in the morning. It also explains why you may not be able to comfort him if he is crying or screaming. Night terrors are usually a shorter 1 to 5 minutes.

To recap, confusional events generally occur in the beginning of the night as your baby or toddler is coming out of deep sleep and transitioning into the next sleep cycle. He might roll over, moan, mumble, move around a bit, fuss / cry a bit and typically go right back to sleep. If he is having a more intense event, he might stand up in his crib, get out of bed and come into your room. A night terror, typically starting around 10 years old, will be much more intense beginning suddenly and ending within a few minutes.

Stay tuned for part 2 where I will explain what nightmares are, when they occur at night, what age they start and when they stop in babies and toddlers. If you haven’t already, you might want to get free updates in your e-mail inbox or via your favorite feed reader, so you won’t miss a thing!

Part 2: Baby / Toddler Night Terrors and Nightmares

Does your baby or toddler have confusional events or night terrors? Tell us about it!

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45 Responses to Baby / Toddler Night Terrors and Nightmares: Part 1

  1. Aruni says:

    Our son had night terrors and the pediatrician told us that it’s most common in boys with about 7% having them and they usually grow out of them by age 6 or 7. Our son still has a couple of them but they have reduced significantly. There was a time he was have a few each night.

    We were advised to try to wake him up before we anticipated the night terror so as to disrupt the sleep cycle and help him start a new one so he might skip it all together.

    We were walking zombies and just did the best we could to survive.
    .-= Aruni´s last blog ..How Do You Know When You’ve Made The Right Decision? =-.

  2. Nicole says:

    @Aruni Oh that sounds rough! Did the disrupt-the-sleep-cycle actually work? I’m glad they’ve gotten better, at least! Thanks for commenting.

  3. Randi says:

    My sweet daughter who is 2 has been having night terrors for some time now. I think her first was when she was 12 months. However her terrors last for hours. She is inconsolable for hours I think the longest period was about a 3 hour stretch in the middle of the night. She wakes up screaming throwing herself around and so forth. If you try to do anything it makes it worse. Eventually she calms down and crawls into your lap, but man it can be soo rough.

  4. Kevin says:

    My 3 year old (middle child – older sister 6, younger brother 15mos) has never been a good sleeper. About two months ago she started waking up screaming about 2 hours after falling asleep (around 8:30pm) and then again between 2-3am. These episodes would last from 5 min to an hour. The 5 minute one being rare. Mostly she screams, shakes, stiffins, and bends around in bed looking like she can’t get comfortable. This usually goes on for 30 minutes then she falls back asleep until the 2am episode. We originally thought molars, growth spurt ect.. Took her to our doctor, he said it was mental, to her to an ear, nose, throat Dr. to rule out sleep apnea or anything else, she was physically fine according to him, so we have been researching night terrors. We have tried everything, solid bedtime routine, no caffine at all during the day, night time foods that promote sleep ect.. We have not tried waking her 15 minutes before it usually happens. We are starting that tonight. Will let you know how it goes. Does anyone have any other suggestions? This is really starting to effect our everyday life, my wife and I have not slept more that 4 hours for the last 2 months. Any suggestions welcome.

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  6. Nicole says:

    @Randi Oh wow! I’ve never heard of night terrors being hours long! :( That sounds really rough. I’ll have to read up on that. Thanks for sharing!

  7. Nicole says:

    @Kevin How did waking 15 minutes early work out for you? Are you also making sure bedtime is sufficiently early?

  8. Paige says:

    We just had our first. My little man will be two next week. He just woke up and started running around the room screaming at me and my husband and shoving us away….he had this animalistic look in his eyes and he was TERRIFIED and I WAS TERRIFIED. I have NEVER seen anything like that! It lasted a FULL 10 minutes……..wow, I hope it never happens again. Eventually I was able to soothe him and hold him and offer him a paci. He is now laying in bed watching lullabyes….
    .-= Paige´s last blog ..Win A New Way to Organize with the Shoes Under! =-.

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  11. Nicole says:

    @Paige Oh wow! That sounds scary! I hope it never happens again!!

  12. michelle says:

    My 19 month old girl woke last night at midnight, screaming and in a state as her 18 week old brother shares her bedroom i took her downstairs she was acting like a zombie and was really sweating. she got in a state as she was determined to put her shoes on so in the end i helped her put them on!!
    she then calmed down and was just lying on the sofa then she got up and dragged her little table and chair to me so i thought she must be hungry so made her a slice of toast which she ate. she then picked up her dolly and was detemined to feed the doll. I finally done a bottle for her and gave it to her in bed and she finally went to sleep around 3.15!
    The last week she has been doing strange things like this in the night but last night was the worse.
    She goes to bed every night easily at 8pm happy to be in bed and she also has couple of naps in day
    Sorry for long message I feel like a zombie myself as my baby wanted feeding at 6!
    any advice please?!

  13. Christie says:

    My son just turned one year old on Tuesday, April 6th. He is my whole world and has my entire heart so when he woke up the first time just screaming his head off, my heart fell out of my chest. I picked him up as calmly as I could and tried to calm him down but he was inconsolable. He grabs at me, clutching my shirt, rubbing his face in my chest, big tears running down his face, and clearly ASLEEP. This scares me to death. When we try to wake him, it is very difficult. My husband and I both had night terrors as a child but not when we were this young. This is my first child and I am at a loss for how to deal with this. We have tried any suggestions from my mom and his mom and our pediatrician seems to think he is not having night terrors but based on the distinction on this website it is definitely a night terror. My mom found this sight and I am thankful. PLEASE! Any help on how we can handle this will be most appreciative because it seems that when he has one they are getting longer in duration.

  14. Christie says:

    P.S. Something else I failed to mention is that he will normally take two naps a day and is ready for bed around 9 or 9:30pm and sleeps most of the night, waking once for a bottle around 3 or 4 sometimes, not always. He was on such a schedule you could set your watch by him. The last few days he has stayed up for 6 hours or longer at a time and took one nap during the day and even fell asleep at 7:45 pm one night. totally off his schedule. could this have anything to do with the terrors.

  15. Kimberly says:

    Hi Christie,
    I can understand how it must be very difficult for you and your husband when your son has one of these episodes. Sometimes night terrors can be linked to a variety of things such as overtiredness, illness or medication. It sounds like perhaps your son may be working on transitioning to one nap. I would recommend you take a look at this post about 12 month old schedule (http://www.babysleepsite.com/tag/12-month-schedule/) and see if you can work on transitioning him to a set one nap schedule that gets him to bed a little earlier than 9 or 9:30. With one nap a day and a fluctuating bedtime, it is possible that he is overtired and this is could be contributing to the night terror episodes. You can also contact Nicole for an email consult for additional help and ideas on how to deal with these and you can find this listed under Products.

  16. Karen says:

    I am the grandmother and frequent babysitter of a 22 month old who started having something that resembles night terrors a month or so ago. He is sleeping, starts screaming, yell “no, no” and is often inconsolable for 30 minutes.

    With the last episode, he screamed my name. Now, my son and daughter in law thinks that I have done something to him that has caused him to be terrified. They do not want me to keep him again.

    Needless to say, this is far from the truth. I don’t believe in corporal punishment at all, and have a tendency to be too lenient, probably. We have (with their approval) been trying to take him off the pacifier, but have given that up. Could this be the cause? Do you think I am responsible for this?

  17. Kimberly says:

    Hi Karen,
    Sounds like a difficult situation. It would be really hard to say what might be causing the night terrors or if it’s just a phase that he’s going through. Hopefully, it’s something that he outgrows or phases out of and that you and your son & daughter in law can find some way to work out the care for their son with regards to your involvement. Perhaps you could recommend that they read this post as way to better understand what their son might be going through.

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  20. KateNonymous says:

    I think my daughter had a night terror an hour or so ago, and she’s only two months old. She was asleep, and then suddenly–like someone had flipped a switch–she was screaming and crying. I changed her diaper and fed her, but she only had an ounce, and then she fell asleep again.

    In fact, she sounded exactly like she did when she got her two-month vaccinations a few days ago, and I wonder whether it was a night terror or a nightmare in which she was reliving the vaccinations.

  21. Maurine says:

    Our 15 month old son had a very high temperature over the weekend, it even got up to 104.5 We took him into urgent care to get him checked, and they said it was a virus that would have to run it’s course. The fever lasted two nights, and we would wake him up to check his temperature and give him more tylenol. His fever is finally gone, but following these two nights he has been waking up and screaming uncontrollably. He will keep yelling “mama, mama” even though I’m holding him. Then he will scream, “baba, baba” and we get him his bottle only to find that he doesn’t want it. These episodes lasted for a few hours each time, and have really made the last few nights very tough. We worry about him, and think that he really might be having these Night Terrors. Could these sessions be caused my his fever? Or maybe because we kept waking him up? After reading some of your solutions, should we just leave him in his crib when he starts to have one again? Or take him out and put him in bed with us and let him scream in our bed?

  22. karen says:

    My 21 month old daughter keeps waking up normal time (2 hours) from her naps screaming she gets out of her bed and when i go into the room she runs in to a corner and tries to climb the walls then if i approach her see runs off screaming no. She gets her self in such a state and hyperventilates. i try offering her a chocolate button and she screams no which is not like her. After 30 mins she will let me cuddle her but then wont let me put her down. This has now just started happening in the night as well. She is my little angel and we are so close, it it heart breaking that i cant comfort her though this. Help please!

  23. Amber says:

    My 3.5 year old daughter has been having episodes of waking at night for over 6 months now. She usually wakes within 1-2 hours of going to sleep. She is on a pretty regular schedule, wakes up around 8, takes a one hour nap at 3 and goes to bed between 8 and 9. Lately, though, she has been foregoing her afternoon nap. The episodes can last from a minute to over five minutes. At first she would wake up crying almost hysterically and would even walk into another room … but she was always inconsolable. We tried talking to her, asking her what’s wrong and she barely will speak, just cries. I thought she was just really uncomfortable for a while, or having bad dreams and didn’t know what to do. Since I’ve been dealing with this for so long I’ve found the best thing to do for her is first go to her as soon as I hear her start crying. If I let her cry it just gets worse and lasts longer. Next I put her back in her bed if she’s gotten out and just rub her back. I don’t talk to her at all, just place her back in her bed, cover her back up and rub her back. This seems to work and she goes right back to sleep. I hate that this happens in the first place but feel as if at least I can comfort us both now.

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  25. Carla says:

    My daughter is 18 months and started having episodes about amonth ago she starts out wimpering and when she doesn’t go back to sleep adn cries more we check on her if you touch her speack to her she will start flailing about screaming you can’t console her or anything it usually lasts 20 minutes and starts anywhere from 11:30-12:30. she usually goes to bed around 9:30-10 OH yeah she never opens her eyes she is clearly asleep for the entire thing sometimes she wakes up afterwords but not all the time

  26. Zara says:

    My daughter is 15 months old. She has never been a peacefull sleeper, but the last two months she is not waking up as normally she would. She screams in her sleep once or twice a night. When I go to her room, I can see that she is not really in peace, and is rolling from one side to another. her eyes are close, but sometimes she is crying with her eyes closed. Sometimes she just gives out a very loud scream and she is fast asleep the next minute.
    Since she started having this scares at night, she has grown more attached to me. She refuses to go to the nanny in the mornings, and sometimes she refuses to be picked up even by her father. She would cry in the morning if she sees me even leaving the room. I feel as if she is afraid that I am going to leave her, but I don;t know whether those actions are connected with her night dreams or terrors. I feel so sorry for her and donlt know what to do to make her feel better. Please help

  27. Lisa says:

    My little boy is 15 months old and has just had one of these. Reading this, it’s obvious that he has minor confusional events all the time and major night terrors less often. He wakes screaming and if he doesn’t settle in a few minutes I know it’s a major one. Then it’s catch 22 … If I don’t go in and pick him up he will just keep screaming. If I do go in and pick him up he will bite, scratch, kick and headbutt me, try to pull my hair and throw himself out of my arms. After he’s beaten me up for 5 minutes or so I can put him back in his cot (asleep the whole time) and he goes back to real sleep as if by magic. His relief at getting rid of me is palpable. So depressing.

  28. Ashley says:

    Hi all I would be really gratefull if some of you would give me your thoughts on my situation. My son is 7 and has been having a rough time. It happened 4 times the first night. First, he ran into the bathroom, shaking, and had a fever of 101. He was yelling at me to be quite as there was people in our house. He said that he could see them in the hallway. He was telling me to be quite because they were going to hear me. Finally calmed him down gave tylenol and back to bed. Now I have hear of kids getting a fever and hallucinating so that is what we chalked it up too. Had 3 more eppisods that night. and no fever by the 2nd time. The last time we had been lying in bed for an hour awake and he looked at me and said “mommy you have red eyes, your scarring me, get away from me, there are things comming out of the ceiling” So we took him to the hospital. No tests done just a standard look over. They were not concerned about him seeing things but his fever. Couldn’t find any thing wrong. Then it happened after his nap (as he was so exhausted) that day . Then 3 days later he wakes up and is scared again. full of sweat but no fever. I wanted to know his level of awarness so a asked him what me name was. “mom” no my real name? “Ashley” he says. he remembers these, he can describe them to me the people. He asks if we have our alarm on. He had night terrors when he was 3. These are different. We have a doc. appointment today. I hope he doesn’t brush me off with just a simple night terror diaganosis. Any advise would be gratefull.

  29. Kimberly says:

    Ashley- Hopefully, your doctor was able to help provide some insight into what’s going on with your son. That must be awfully frightening for you. Remember, you are his mom, you know him best and you will be his biggest advocate to help find out what’s going on with him. If your regular doctor is not able to help, you might consider calling your local mental health center or seek the option of a psychiatrist.

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  31. Amber Kestner says:

    My daughter and nephew are both 4 months old, both born a week a part in august i’m just wondering since they both had, had nightmares at about the same time could their be a reason at such a age why they both would end up screaming in the middle of the night.

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  33. Destinee says:

    My son has been waking up screaming in what sounds like fear for several months now. His doctor doesn’t know what it is; he says that it sounds like night terrors, but that my son, at six months old, is too young to have those. Is he right? If he is, why on earth is my little guy waking up screaming like this? His dad and I are completely stumped. When he does, nothing helps him-he just screams and screams, no matter what we do. He has a solid bedtime routine and all that. He doesn’t want food or a drink when he wakes up like that; he twists and screams when we hold him, fights us when we pick him up…we don’t know what this is or what to do. Please help us!

  34. Amber says:

    Destinee – my daughter is now 4 years old and still has these episodes every now and then, I have the same type of experience – she doesn’t want or need me, she just cries or screams, twists and turns like she’s in pain. It sometimes, sometimes helps if I just sit there and say nothing and rub her back. Rarely. I’ve heard it sometimes happens because they are not getting enough sleep in the daytime also so you could assess yourself there? I say just take comfort that you’re not alone in this phenomena and do the best you can. :)

  35. Sue says:

    One of my 6 month old twins shouts in her sleep. It is not a cry but a continual shout which can sometimes turn into a cry. It can happen any time during the night but usually after midnight and happens most nights. It can go on for over an hour if I leave her. Has anyone got any idea what would cause her to do this and if it is better to leave her or wake her up? Any thoughts would be appreciated.

  36. Christy says:

    My son is 9 years old and just finished having one of his episodes. He has had these since he was 4, although now they only occur about once a month. It really scares me and I feel so helpless. He comes in to whatever room I’m in screaming and pacing around the whole house. I try comforting him but it seems like I freak him out. It’s like he doesnt know who I am. He will start picking things up and setting them down, he tried moving the tv tonight. He mumbles and doesn’t make sense. The few words I do make out just let me know that he is frightened of something and he’s trying to get away of whatever it is. But it just breaks my heart. When I hold him I can feel his heart beating so hard and fast. Im just so confused on what it could be that is causing this. I feel like he gets plenty of sleep. And he eats a good healthy diet. But if it’s something they grow out of then why has his lasted for so long? That’s the thing that really bothers me.

  37. tia says:

    So I’m on here looking about my 9mth. old but the more I read the more these stories remind me of my 7 1/2yr. old. She was prescribed Singulair at age 1 for severe allergies and asthma and took it for several years just fine but at about 5 we started having problems with her having emotional outbursts during the day and these horrible crazy night terrors at night. My husband totally terrified by what was happening to our child started doing some research and found tons of people with children who were having the same problems while taking Singulair. So we stopped the medicine and she no longer has the night terrors. I just wanted to put this out there for some of you to check the medicines your child is taking could be causing problems.

  38. Martina says:

    My son (7 now) had night terrors about 5 years ago. I searched online for any info and most doctor sites said that it was just a phase and nothing you can do. I ended up finding a forum where people from all over the world posted (about night terrors their children had or they had) and quite a few mentioned that when their children got too warm (overheated) or when they had a fever, they would experience night terrors. At the time it was winter and I had my son in fleece sleepers and using a duvet. We switched him to light cotton PJ’s with no socks on and a very light sheet. It worked like a charm and he never had another night terror. I’m not sure if it would work for everyone but it sure worked for us and wouldn’t hurt to try. Hope this helps someone :)

  39. Nicole says:

    @Martina Thank you so much for sharing! I, too, have found my son (5 now) has more nightmares when he is too warm! I think we’re on to something. :)

  40. Katie+Fadime says:

    my daughter fadime always used to laugh and gigle in her sleep and then she started sleeping frew about 5 weeks ago she is now 7 munths and 2 weeks but for the past week she has been crying and screeming in her sleep like i havent herd befor i realy do not know what to do it is all night somtimes they are only 10-15 minits between eachouther they are keeping me awake most nights becouse i am worid about her and it carnt be dooing her anygood ither pleas do you know what has started them? how i can help her? pleas it would be grate to have any reply PLEAS

  41. I think we had a toddler confusional event/night terror last night. We co-sleep with our son since the day he was born (at home) & did not experience crying at night (except for teething). I believe this is because I was there to assist him in the transitional sleeping state by either “shh shh shh” ing him, calmly comforting him with a touch or night nursing. He would wake up sometimes for hours in the middle of the night when he was going through a developmental stage like when he learned how to stack objects & wanted to practice. The only time he woke up crying were the few times when new teeth were breaking skin. He might have not always been quick to console but he would allows us to hold him & enjoyed being in our wrap as it would calm him down.
    Last night my boy who will be 20 months old next week woke up about an hour or so after going to bed. He was standing next to the bed screaming crying hysterically. He would not let me pick him up let alone nurse him back to sleep. He kept running away from us, body slam the ground even slap himself. His crying intensified if we looked at him or tried to talk to him. He would hide, run, sit, body slam the floor all in a disoriented way while crying & screaming hysterically. He had no temperature & all his teeth are in (well except his two front ones which he lost a few weeks ago when he had an accident … You can read about that on my blog). Nothing would console him & if we tried, his hysteria escalated. It lasted a good 30 minutes & terrified us although we remained calm thinking that he was having a meltdown because he woke with some scary feelings & he did not know how to handle it & no one was in the room. After that 30 minutes. He seamed to stop crying and put out his arms for me to hold him & I nursed him right back to sleep. Was this a combination of a confusional state with a degree of toodler night terrors? Thank you for your website by the way, it has been helpful.

  42. Oh for anyone interested in the blog post mentioned above.. My blog is located at http://www.milkmommymilk.com/Journey-of-an-organic-home-based-business-mom_bc_2.html and it is the one called “mini trauma” & for future reference, most american dentists will not put baby teeth back in. Thanks for letting me share.

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