Baby / Toddler Night Terrors and Nightmares: Part 1

Baby / Toddler Night Terrors and Nightmares: Part 1

Welcome to part 1 of my Baby / Toddler Night Terrors and Nightmares series! Here 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. Dr Ferber (where the term “ferberizing” comes from) is the director of The Center for Pediatric Sleep Disorders in Boston, MA. He 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. He 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. Part of your mind is trying to go back to sleep and part of your mind is trying to wake up. 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. 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. She 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. If she wakes at the end will probably not remember anything. It is rare, but some kids will jump out of bed 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. 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). 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. 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. This 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. 

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. He’ll 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 true 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. 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? We can help!

All content of The Baby Sleep Site®, such as articles, e-guides, e-Books, advice, evaluative consultations, text, graphics, images, and other material contained on The Baby Sleep Site® (“Content”) are for informational and supportive purposes only. The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional or medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always, always, always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified healthcare provider with any questions you may have regarding your or your child’s medical condition(s), behaviors, feeding and sleeping habits, and environment. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on The Baby Sleep Site®.

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 and make a purchase, The Baby Sleep Site® may (but not always) receive a small commission from the company selling the product, but will not affect your purchase price. We only recommend products that we believe are quality products and are good for our readers.

Holistic Sleep Solutions from The Baby Sleep Site®

e-Book bundles

Do-It-Yourself: Just getting started with your research but you want to stop Googling? Choose from any of our e-book bundles for practical advice you can put to use TODAY!  

Become a VIP Member

Do-It-Mostly-Yourself: Would you like to continue learning with the option of getting answers from an expert sleep consultant? We have a perfect solution! Become a VIP Member for access to all of our premium content. This includes ALL of our e-books and bonuses, audio courses, access to our “ask the author” feature giving you answers to your pressing questions from an expert baby sleep consultant, and more!

Get a Personalized Sleep Plan

Work With a Sleep Expert: Tap into over a decade of experience with thousands of families before you! Get a Personalized Sleep Plan® just for your unique situation, get guidance and answers to all your “what if?” questions while you work through your plan, and benefit from expert support along the way. We can’t tell you how many times we’ve heard “I wish I had done this sooner!” Not sure? Read these stories from well-rested parents.

Don’t lose another wink of sleep — GET STARTED TODAY with our gentler, kinder approach to healthy sleep!

FREE Guide: Five Ways To Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night

Join over 500,000 parents for 15+ years & sign up today to receive the guide and Newzzz, our Baby Sleep Newsletter absolutely FREE!

Share to...