Welcome 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!