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How to Handle Your Toddler’s or Preschooler’s Nightmares and Night Terrors: Part Two

Toddler-Night-TerrorThis week, we’re continuing our 2-part series about your toddler or preschooler’s nightmares and night terrors. Last week, we looked carefully at nightmares — when they begin, what causes them, and how we as parents can help our children through them.

This week, we’re taking a look at night terrors. While night terrors may not sound different from nightmares, in truth, night terrors are quite different, and are far less common. They also tend to be far more terrifying and intense than nightmares, making them upsetting for parents.

In today’s article, we’ll explore what night terrors are, the ages at which they typically start and stop, and why children have them. We’ll also walk through some helpful tips to coping with a toddler’s or preschooler’s night terrors.

When and Why Do Night Terrors Happen?

It might seem odd to discuss the cause of night terrors before we actually look at what night terrors are, but stay with me here. ;) It’s important to start with the ‘why’ behind night terrors, because once we understand what’s happening to our little ones’ bodies and brains during particular sleep stages, we’ll better understand their night terrors.

If you read last week’s article, you’ll remember that nightmares happen during REM sleep — specifically, the longer REM cycles that happen in the second half of the night. Night terrors are closely linked to our sleep cycles, too. Nicole explains it this way, in a past article:

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.

Night terrors typically happen at the tail end of this first sleep cycle, as your toddler or preschooler is transitioning from her deep sleep to lighter sleep. Some kids seem to get “stuck” between sleep cycles; they’re not fully asleep, but they’re not awake, either. Nicole explains it this way:

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.

This is the moment when night terrors occur.

What Are Night Terrors? (And How Are They Different From ‘Confusional Events’?)

We can’t discuss night terrors without discussing ‘confusional events’ as well. Why? Because they represent two sides of the same coin. True night terrors aren’t common; it’s estimated that just 1% of people ever experience them. Confusional events are far more common, especially for toddlers and preschoolers.

Like night terrors, confusional events usually happen in the first few hours after bedtime, as a child is transitioning from deep sleep to lighter sleep between sleep cycles. Confusional events may be mild: your toddler or preschooler may mumble or moan, toss and turn for a moment, and then go back to sleep. But they can also be fairly intense. As Nicole explains,

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.

Confusional events like this can be short (a minute or so), but sometimes, they can last for 30 or even 40 minutes.

Night terrors are very, very intense confusional events. A person who’s in the midst of a night terror will look terrified, and may actually be violent. Night terrors don’t typically last very long; most night terrors are between 1 and 5 minutes long.

What Causes Confusional Events and Night Terrors?

It’s important to remember that mild confusional events are normal, and are simply a part of how we as humans sleep. Nicole puts it this way:

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.

If your child’s confusional events are mild and irregular, then there’s nothing to worry about. If they’re intense, however, or if they’re happening frequently, then you’ll want to figure out what’s causing them, and make a change (if possible.)

No one can say for sure what causes confusional events and night terrors in some children and not in others, but experts agree that the following factors definitely contribute:

  • Overtiredness. This is a big one. Children who are overly tired or exhausted are more prone to confusional events and night terrors.
  • Disruption to sleep schedules and routines. If your toddler or preschooler’s bedtime and sleep schedules have been thrown out of whack for several days in a row, he’ll be more likely to experience a confusional event or night terror.
  • Heredity. Interestingly, tendencies toward night terrors and confusional events (as well as sleep walking and sleep talking) seem to be genetic. So if others in your family have experienced these, then it increases the odds that your toddler or preschooler will, too.
  • Sleep disorders. Children who have other sleep disorders, like sleep apnea and Restless Leg Syndrome, are more likely to have confusional events and night terrors.
  • Bladder awareness. This one doesn’t apply to night terrors, but it definitely applies to confusional events. I couldn’t find any hard evidence to confirm this, but there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence out there that seems to indicate a link between a toddler or preschooler having a full bladder and experiencing a confusional event. On his website, Dr. Alan Greene explains,

    Recently, my youngest son was having a confusional arousal [event], and his mother observed that these events are most common at the same ages that children are becoming aware of the bladder feeling full during sleep. Perhaps some of these kids just need to go to the bathroom? We stood him in front of the toilet, and he urinated, still not awake. The episode faded abruptly, and he returned to sleep. The calm was dramatic.

    Was this a coincidence? Or might this be a revolutionary new help for parents whose kids have these frightening episodes? A number of readers have tried this approach. Most said it worked wonders; a few said it had no effect.

How To Handle Confusional Events and Night Terrors

At best, it’s unsettling for parents to witness these episodes; at worst, it’s downright terrifying. And here’s the hardest part: parents, there is literally nothing you can do to make a confusional event or a night terror stop once it’s started. Nothing. You just have to ride it out with your child.

However, these tips and insights might make the “riding it out” part a bit easier for both of you:

  • Don’t touch your child. I know, I know — this runs counter to every parental instinct you have! But picking your child up, hugging her tight, trying to rock her, etc. will probably just make things worse. Many parents report that night terrors and confusional events are shorter when they (the parents) don’t touch their children. Instead, try lying near your child. This is a way for you to provide some comfort without actually touching your little one.
  • Don’t try to wake your child up, or make him “snap out of it”. Again, this is a totally normal instinct. But shouting at your child, or shaking him, in an effort to wake him up may just startle him even more, and make the night terror worse. Instead, try turning on a dim light and talking or singing softly. This may gently, gradually rouse your little one and provide some comfort.
  • Dress your child lightly for bed. This is more of a preventative tip. Some parents share that their children seem prone to confusional events and night terrors when they’re overheated. (Some is true for nightmares, actually.) So dress your child lightly for bed, and make sure she sleeps under light blankets.
  • Try waking your child a few hours after bedtime. Again, this is another preventative tip. Around the time that your child would normally have a night terror, wake her from sleep. Make sure she’s fully awake; ask her to sit up, or to get up and walk around; offer her a small drink. Then, put her back to bed. Some parents report that this really does work — it serves to reset the child’s sleep clock, in a way, and prevents the night terror from happening at all.
  • Make sure your child is getting the sleep he needs. A final preventative tip: take a good, long look at your toddler’s or preschooler’s sleeping habits and schedules, and be sure that your little one is getting enough sleep. Remember, overtiredness and chronic exhaustion contributes hugely to nightmares and night terrors, so ensuring that your little one is well-rested and has good nighttime routines in place can go a long way towards warding off night terrors.

    Need help in getting your toddler’s sleep on track? We’re here for you! Check out our e-book all about toddler sleep, entitled The 5 Step System to Better Toddler Sleep. Don’t want to attempt this on your own? No worries — our team of highly-trained consultants can walk you through every step of the process!

Have you dealt with night terrors and confusional events? What has your experience been like? What have you learned, and what advice can you offer other parents who are experiencing the same thing?

Nightmares, Night Terrors, and Confusional Events — oh my! If your toddler’s in the midst of some challenging sleep problems, please be sure to pick up your FREE copy of Toddler Sleep Secrets, our e-Book offering tips to help your toddler sleep better. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using a unique approach and practical tools for success, our e-books help you and your baby sleep through the night and nap better. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.

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How to Handle Your Toddler’s or Preschooler’s Nightmares and Night Terrors: Part One

Toddler Nightmares Night Terror

As a parent, you’ve probably had some experience with your baby or toddler waking in the middle of the night. And if you’ve read many of our Baby Sleep Site™ blog articles or free guides, you’ve likely learned a lot about what can cause night waking: sleep associations, hunger, teething, illness, schedule problems, etc.

Here’s a night-waking cause that catches many parents of toddlers by surprise, however: nightmares and night terrors. Starting around 18 months, your toddler may start to wake at night not out of habit, or because she’s hungry or sick, but because she’s scared. And these nightmares and night terrors can continue well into the preschool and school years, too.

So, what causes nightmares and night terrors? When do they start? And what’s the difference between them? That’s the topic of an article series that we’re presenting over the next two weeks. This week, we’ll look specifically at nightmares and how to deal with them; next week, we’ll examine night terrors and examine how they’re different than nightmares.

Your Toddler’s or Preschooler’s Nightmares: When They Start and Why They Happen

As we adults know from experience, a nightmare is simply a scary dream. Often, nightmares start as normal, non-threatening dreams and then take a frightening turn.

No one knows for certain when nightmares begin — mainly because our babies aren’t articulate enough to tell us if they’ve had a bad dream. We do know, however, that dreams and nightmares occur during the active stage of sleep, known as REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. Babies experience REM sleep just like we adults do (in fact, babies experience far more REM sleep than adults do!), so it’s possible that a baby – even a newborn – can experience dreams and nightmares.

It may be helpful to note that a person’s REM cycles get longer as the night progresses. A child’s first REM cycle is fairly short (10 minutes or so), but each subsequent REM cycle is longer, with the last being close to an hour long. For this reason, most people (children and adults alike) tend to have their dreams or nightmares in the second half of the night.

Evidence of nightmares can be seen as early as one year old, although as Nicole has written in a previous article about nightmares, many parents don’t see any evidence of nightmares until their toddler is a bit older:

Since a one-year old can’t talk or express himself that well, it’s hard to know just how complex his dreams are, but by two years old, when the imagination has really started to come alive, nightmares can get very specific. However, at this age, although they might understand a nightmare is just a dream and have an idea about what a dream is, when he wakes up, he might not fully understand the dream is over and still remain scared for a bit later.

As your child gets older, the understanding between dream and reality will get better and by 5 years old, she will have a much bigger grasp of the difference between dream and reality. Even when your child is older, it doesn’t mean the dreams won’t be scary, but they may not always need you to come for help (which I’m sure is a bittersweet feeling!)

There’s no definitive cause of nightmares, but there are certain problems or situations that may make a toddler or preschooler more prone to nightmares. These include:

  • Illness (many children are prone to nightmares when they have fevers.)
  • Overtiredness (children who are overly exhausted have more nightmares than children who are well-rested.)
  • Having irregular sleep routines (a lack of a bedtime routine can make nightmares more prevalent.)
  • Developmental milestones (children may be more prone to nightmares around the times that they’re conquering a developmental step, like learning a new skill.)
  • Stress or anxiety (outside circumstances – like a move, or the birth of a new sibling – may cause your toddler or preschooler anxiety, which can in turn cause nightmares)
  • A traumatic event (if your toddler or preschooler has experienced something traumatic, he may have repeated nightmares after the event.)

Nicole’s Note:
“I have found that my eldest son gets more nightmares when he’s too hot while he sleeps. All year round I am trying to perfect the temperature in his room, what pajamas he wears, and whether I turn the fan on or not. It’s a little maddening, to be honest! :)”

How to Deal With Your Toddler’s or Preschooler’s Nightmares

You won’t know your toddler or preschooler has even had a nightmare, of course, unless she tells you about it. And remember that your child can have nightmares that even she won’t remember.

However, you’ll probably experience the occasional middle-of-the-night waking when your toddler or preschooler does have a nightmare, and when that happens, you need to be ready to help her through her fears. Keep the following in mind as you work to comfort your toddler or preschooler after a nightmare:

  • Your child’s fear is real. The events of your little one’s nightmare may be fictional, but his fear isn’t. Respect your toddler’s or preschooler’s feelings, and offer plenty of comfort and reassurance. Physical reassurance is especially good — offer plenty of hugs!
  • Don’t add to your child’s fear by overreacting. If your child wakes crying and afraid in the middle of the night, it’s perfectly understandable for you, the parent, to feel anxious and upset as well. However, remember that your toddler or preschooler takes many of her cues from you. So if you seem agitated, it’ll only make your child more upset. If you’re able to remain calm and fairly neutral, however, it’ll go a long way towards helping your child feel reassured and relaxed. This principle applies to many other aspects of your toddler’s or preschooler’s life, too — including separation anxiety. If your child wakes from a nightmare, try singing a song together, or reading a book (this one about nightmares is great!), or simply cuddling.
  • Cutesy techniques may work, but they can also backfire. Some parents have luck with techniques like “magical monster spray” (child sprays a bit of lavender-scented water at bedtime, to ward off monsters), or doing monster hunts around the room (to prove to the child that no monsters are lurking.) And these certainly can work. However, be aware that these methods can also backfire because they play along with your child’s notion that monsters and scary creatures actually exist. In some cases, it can be better to simply remind your child frequently that monsters aren’t real, and that nothing in their room can hurt them.
  • Be wary of causing any long-term habits in response to a short-term problem. We preach this quite a bit here at the Baby Sleep Site™, and it applies here as well: don’t try to “fix” a short-term problem by helping your child to develop bad sleep habits. If you want to bring your toddler or preschooler into your bed after a bad dream, or if you want to climb into his bed with him, that’s your decision (and doing it on occasion probably won’t do any harm.) But that can quickly become a regular thing. Toddlers tend to develop bad sleeping habits quickly, and those habits can be hard for parents to break. So be mindful of the solutions you’re using to solve your toddler’s or preschooler’s nightmare problems, and make sure they’re solutions that won’t cause any long-term issues. You want to read our recent article from Dr. Kaylene Henderson for some additional tips on how to handle toddler fears and bedtime monsters.

Stay tuned next week for an article about how to deal with night terrors, which are completely different than nightmares!

Have nightmares been a problem for your toddler or preschooler? How have they affected your little one’s sleep? What tips and techniques have you learned to cope? Share your insights with us, parents!

Are nightmares making it hard for your toddler to sleep? Or maybe nightmares aren’t involved at all — maybe your toddler has some bad sleep habits that you’re looking to fix! Either way, please be sure to pick up your FREE copy of Toddler Sleep Secrets, our e-Book offering tips to help your toddler sleep better. For those persistent nighttime struggles, check out The 3-Step System to Help Your Baby Sleep (babies) or The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep (toddlers). Using a unique approach and practical tools for success, our e-books help you and your baby sleep through the night and nap better. For those looking for a more customized solution for your unique situation with support along the way, please consider one-on-one baby and toddler sleep consultations, where you will receive a Personalized Sleep Plan™ you can feel good about! Sometimes it’s not that you can’t make a plan. Sometimes you’re just too tired to.

Disclosure: The Baby Sleep Site™ is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and other product affiliate programs. If you click on a product link above and make a purchase, The Baby Sleep Site may receive a small commission from the company selling the product. This commission will not affect your purchase price. We only recommend products that we believe are quality products and good for our readers.

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Baby / Toddler Night Terrors and Nightmares: Part 2

Welcome to part 2 of the Night Terrors and Nightmares Series. If you are just joining us, you might want to start with part 1 where I go over night terrors in babies and toddlers.

What are Nightmares?

Nightmares are very scary dreams. They usually start as a normal dream and then they take a turn for the worst. We don’t remember every dream or nightmare. It’s only when we wake up at the end do we remember them, even if we just wake up briefly.

What age do nightmares start?

This, they don’t know for sure, but they do know by one year old, a child can definitely have a nightmare. It makes sense that it can and does happen sooner, but it’s hard to say how complex a dream can be at one day, one month, or 6 months old, but since nightmares occur during our “active sleep” (during rapid-eye-movement (REM) for those who want to know a bit more about the technical terms), it is possible even your newborn can have a dream and therefore, a nightmare. Newborns spend a good amount of time in this stage of sleep.

Since a one-year old can’t talk or express himself that well, it’s hard to know just how complex his dreams are, but by two years old, when the imagination has really started to come alive, nightmares can get very specific. However, at this age, although they might understand a nightmare is just a dream and have idea about what a dream is, when he wakes up, he might not fully understand the dream is over and still remain scared for a bit later.

As your child gets older, the understanding between dream and reality will get better and by 5 years old, she will have a much bigger grasp of the difference between dream and reality. Even when your child is older, it doesn’t mean the dreams won’t be scary, but they may not always need you to come for help (which I’m sure is a bittersweet feeling).

All children are different in their development, so the age that your child may or may not need you after a nightmare will vary.

Why do we have nightmares?

Everyone has nightmares at one time or another, but those with more emotional tension or upset during the day will probably have more nightmares, because nightmares usually come about from the daily struggles in your day. This will also depend on how sensitive the dreamer is. Nightmares are a very normal part of your child’s development and working through daily’s life struggles.

Night terrors vs. Nightmares

We learned last week when I described night terrors, that it’s important to distinguish night terrors from nightmares because how we resolve them will be very different. Night terrors or other confusional events will not result in your child being fully awake afterward, but with a nightmare, he will be and he will be clearly frightened.

With Night terrors you usually figure out your child is having one in the middle of it happening, but in a nightmare, you will only know it happened after it’s over and your child is awake and scared. It is also important to note that nightmares usually occur in the second half of the night while night terrors typically happen within the first few hours of the night. It is often hard to settle or calm a child having a night terror and he isn’t fully awake barely responding to you, but once it’s over he goes back to sleep quickly. After a nightmare your child will feel comforted by you, but may or may not go back to sleep as easily depending on the age of your child and how scary the dream was.

Nightmares can be very scary and there are ways to try to limit night terrors and nightmares, how to handle each when you’re in the thick of things, and how to discourage any bad habits from forming. If you need help on dealing with your toddler’s night terrors or nightmares, I encourage you to consider purchasing our comprehensive e-Book on toddler sleep, The 5-Step System to Better Toddler Sleep. You can also contact me. I’d love to help!

Share your child’s nightmares

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Baby / Toddler Night Terrors and Nightmares: Part 1

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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