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 covers 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 sleepwalk. 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 at 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 sign up for one of our free guides, and you’ll also get free updates in your e-mail inbox, 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! Scroll down to share your story and to hear from other parents just like you!

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180 thoughts on “Baby / Toddler Night Terrors and Nightmares: Part 1”

  1. My daughter is 4 yo. She has had what I called sleep tantrums for the last year or more. She will start fussing and moving around while asleep. Usually within the first few hours of sleep. Then she will start crying and yelling. That’s when I go in. She will react when I enter the room. She seems to acknowledge that I am Mom and then will scream at me about things that makes sense and some things that don’t. She will hit and yell the entire time. These have lasted up to 45 mins are as little as 10. Then suddenly she will stop yelling and crying and simply be calmly sleeping. When you ask her about them in the morning she does not remember them at all. Also I have noticed they happen more when she has been overwhelmed, sick or there has been lots of change has occurred. Any insight would be helpful. Thank you.

  2. Hi!
    My daughter just turned 5 months and has always been a rough sleeper. She still wakes every 2-3 hours for a feeding, but for the past few weeks has been “up” at 4 in the morning crying and turning and whimpering, sometimes her pulse is racing. This usually lasts 30-40 minutes. She is asleep the whole time, but the symptoms diminish a bit when I move her to bed with me and rub her back. What is going on?
    Thanks from a very tired and concerned mom!

  3. Hi,

    Our 3 year old has what I assume are night terrors. He wakes up inconsolable and kicking around in his bed. He’s usually yelling and crying out “No, I don’t want to!” Or something similar.
    90% of these happen at night after being at daycare that day. He goes to daycare twice a week and generally – maybe 70% of the time – he’ll wake up in this state on those nights. Most other nights he has no issues sleeping through.
    Often as well as “No” he is saying things that reference his day at daycare such as “I don’t want to play with you John!” Or “I want to climb that!”.
    It has been happening for probably 2 years now and has always been the same – mainly on daycare nights.
    Generally on these days also, he doesn’t really have a decent day sleep like he does when at home. He sleeps for up to 2 hours in the early afternoon when at home and still sleeps through the night however at daycare he will have anything between just a rest and at best 1 hour. Most of the time it’s around 20 minutes.
    Could it be a case do you think, that he is having these episodes on these nights because of overstimulation during the day and not having the capacity to mentally digest and work through everything that has happened?
    Such a strange experience for my wife and I seeing our boy seemingly scared and angry!
    Thank you for your time.

    • Hi Paul,
      Thank you for using The Baby Sleep Site a resource! I’m so sorry to hear your son is experiencing such difficulty at night – it sounds like such a hard thing for a parent to experience. Night terrors at this age are most common when a kiddo has not been getting enough sleep, so it’s possible that, because your son’s naps are short/ non-existent at daycare, that he is then overtired and experiencing nightmares. However, since this has been going on for such a long time, we would recommend bringing it up with his pediatrician, just to make sure you’ve ruled out any physical causes. It would be great to have a conversation with his daycare provider as well, to make sure there’s nothing going on there that could be causing your son’s distress. I hope this helps – good luck with everything!

  4. Hi Danielle,
    My 8 month old son (8weeks prem) has started having these episodes about a week ago. He has had two so far. He wakes bolt upright with a cry that makes me think he is seriously injured. He has his eyes open but is not seeing anything like staring into space. Crying and kicking out for between 5 to 15 minutes. He will then calm and fall right back asleep. My husbands nan has had awful night terrors as long as I can remember. Should I be worried that these episodes are happening?

    • Hi @Christina – Thanks for writing, and I am sorry to hear that your baby has been waking like this! I know how tough this can be on parents, so hang in there and know that you are not alone! It is common for babies of all ages to wake abruptly like this, so don’t be worried! It sounds like he is going right back to sleep, which is good! I think this article may help:
      Hang in there and I hope that things smooth out quickly!

  5. Hi
    My 5 month old daughter experienced this two times of which the first happened while she was actually sleeping in my arms.. she suddenly started burst in tears with her eyes closed for about 4 minutes. I tried to wake her up and she did but seemed suffering to open her eyes then 5 minutes later she fell back in sleep again.. second time she also started crying suddenly for about 2 minutes but didn’t wake up.. I carried her and tried to soothe her so she stopped crying and continued sleeping..
    I wonder if these are sleep terrors?? They happened with a 3 day gap between each..
    Could sleep terrors occur at this age?

    • Hi Tharaa,
      Thank you for using The Baby Sleep Site as a resource! I’m sorry you’re dealing with these crying spells, but we’d love to help. Nightmares are incredibly rare in babies under 2 years-old, unless there’s been a significant trauma in their lives. More often, short crying like you’re describing is actually a baby transitioning between sleep cycles. We talk more about this in our article here:
      I hope this helps, and good luck!

    • My daughter is 3 months old and just started bawling in bedand I couldn’t wake her either or soothe her and it took while to wake her up and I nursed her back to sleep. I’m still not sure what it is either.

  6. Hello,
    I have an 8 month old daughter and she has be waking in the middle of the nights crying/screaming very hard to where she turns beet red, I nor my husband can wake her up from it and when we eventually do it takes a good 5 minutes or so. We’ve tried everything such as singing, talking to her, holding her close and rocking her, playing music as far as trying to soothe her. I was hoping you could give us some insight as to what it may be and what we could do when it does happen again?

    • Hi @Sabrinna, thank you for writing to us. I’m so sorry to hear you’re experiencing this with your daughter. I’m sure it is very scary to have to watch and to not be able to calm her down. You may want to try googling “startle reflex” or “moro reflex” and see if that sounds like what she’s experiencing. My second had a really bad startle reflex and did something similar to what you described when we stopped swaddling him, it was so freaky and I hated it so much! Thankfully he grew out of it, but I can’t remember what age it all leveled out. If it is something else, such as night terrors, you can be comforted that she will not remember it so it is not creating a trauma for her, but I know that’s probably not much comfort for you. If you have any concerns about it continually, I’d of course suggest speaking to her doctor to make sure they don’t have any other suggestions since they know her medical history and have much more knowledge than me. I hope things improve for you soon.

  7. My daughter is 16mo and just in the last 2 weeks started to do something similar. She would wake within 1-2hrs of sleep and be crying/screaming in an extremely traumatised way. She does not respond to any of our efforts to comfort her, will arch her back and kick about when picked up so we’ve learnt to just leave her alone but watch closely so she doesn’t hurt herself. Sometimes her eyes will be open and staring straight at us but doesn’t seem to register that we’re there. I found out from my parents and sister that this apparently runs in the family…my brother and nephew had the same thing between 1-2rs.

    • Hi Cindy,
      Thank you for using The Baby Sleep Site as a resource! I’m so sorry to hear that you’re dealing with night wakings like this. Our first suggestion is always to check in with a pediatrician, as occasionally, this can by a symptom of a medical issue. And, as you mention, some families do have a history of nightmares or other sleep disturbances, some of which are treatable conditions. However, we also recommend you have a good look at your daughter’s schedule and make sure she’s getting enough sleep, and that her bedtimes and naptimes are age appropriate. A poor schedule can lead to sleep disruptions that look a lot like nightmares, but which will resolve when the schedule is adjusted. I hope this helps – good luck!

  8. Hi

    Wonder if you can offer any advice for us? Our 9 month old, who has a cows milk allergy and never been really a settled baby, has worsened ridiculously over the last month. He did have a period where he would sleep all night from approx 10 weeks until maybe 15/16 weeks old. This coincided with changing his milk to non dairy. We weaned early due to reflux and since this time we’ve had perhaps 3/4 nights per week where he would cry/sob/scream whilst still asleep. We put this down to allergies to other foods but now over the last four weeks this behaviour has moved to every night and is for the whole night on and off, so i don’t think it is allergy related. He will go to bed well, between 7/7.30. Then, from around 11pm until 6am approx, be in this crying/screaming/sobbing state, thrashing around his cot or the bed, he pushes you away if your holding him. You can’t settle him, it makes no difference if you cuddle/stroke/shush. He may have a break for 5 to 20 minutes every so often and then it starts over again. He doesn’t seem particularly tired or sleepy the next day and is relatively happy (for him!). We’d really appreciate some advice. He has been referred to a paediatrician but the wait could be quite long. we’ve booked to see a cranial osteopath but realise this may not help.

    • Hi Kerri,
      Thank you for using The Baby Sleep Site as a resource! I’m sorry to hear you’re having these difficult nights with your son! We would definitely recommend checking in with a pediatrician just in case it’s a medical issue, especially considering his allergies, but it can be normal for some babies to move a *lot* while they’re sleeping, as they are spending more of the night in REM sleep than adults do. If he is meeting milestones and does not seem overtired, this may be what’s going on. However, we do also see this kind of behavior at night with some babies who are overtired and are having trouble linking their sleep cycles together. We have a sample 9 month-old schedule you can look at to see if your naps and nights are spaced correctly:

      I hope this helps, but if you need more resources, please do get in touch at [email protected] – we would be happy to help! Good luck!

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