When toddlers are still infants, we often notice them giggling or smiling while asleep, it is because they are dreaming. At the age of 2, however, bad dreams start to come in. Toddler nightmares or night terrors are what your child is experiencing whenever they suddenly cry and get terrified in the wee hours after midnight.
What Are Toddler Nightmares?
Nightmares are bad, scary, and realistic dreams that wake your child up during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. A nightmare causes your child to immediately get up in bed and cry.
Your child will remember a nightmare and will most likely engage in a conversation about it. Sometimes, children who recently experienced a nightmare will have difficulty going back to sleep as it is hard for them to separate reality from a dream or nightmare.
What Are Toddler Night Terrors?
Night terrors are often confused with nightmares because they involve a scared, crying child. However, night terrors do not involve real-like imagery, as nightmares do. Instead, night terrors are a sudden reaction to fear during sleep stage transitions.
Toddlers might scream, wail, shout, and on rare occasions sleepwalk during night terrors. Waking them and consoling them is not going to help, as they are still in deep sleep.
Night terrors happen during non-REM sleep and last for a few minutes that can be recurrent during sleeping hours. Toddlers will not remember a night terror once woken up in the morning, unlike nightmares.
What Causes Toddler Nightmares or Night Terrors?
Toddlers are always happy, active, and full of love, but these will not shield them from a possible nightmare or night terror during bedtime.
As a parent, it is best if you are aware of the factors that cause toddler nightmares or night terrors so you can help your child manage and make the situation better. Nightmare and night terror causes include:
Stress and anxiety
Stress and anxiety are common causes of nightmares and night terrors. Toddlers may feel stressed and anxious when something triggers their fear like seeing a spider, being alone in the dark, or separation anxiety.
Young children may also feel these emotional tensions when they are being reprimanded by their parents or being shunned away by other children
Major life changes such as having a new sibling, moving into a new home, being with new people, or going to school are things that cause nightmares and night terrors.
Injuries, accidents, being in the hospital, or being lost are also great factors that affect a toddler’s nighttime experience.
Irregular sleeping schedule
Sleeping very late and waking up too early or not having a regular bedtime routine can result in frequent nightmares or night terrors.
Having an active imagination
Having an overactive imagination may lead toddlers to experience realistic bad dreams and fear-triggering emotions.
Even when sleeping, young children tend to imagine things they saw right before going to bed. Watching or reading scary stories before bedtime stimulates the occurrence of nightmares and night terrors.
Having a fever
Fever can also trigger nightmares. High body temperature can affect brain function, which can result in hallucinations and visual imagery.
How to Manage Toddler Nightmares or Night Terrors?
Here are some tips you can use when your child experiences a nightmare or a night terror episode:
- Don’t panic and let your child calm down on their own.
- Let your toddler feel your presence. Try holding your toddler’s hand or simply call their name and say that you are right there.
- Do not force your child to wake up during a night terror episode. Doing this will terrify and upset your toddler even more.
- Provide comfort and assure your child that everything is fine.
- Explain to your toddler that everyone experiences bad dreams, even you. This step is important as it will make your child feel that they are not alone.
- Talk about what happened once they wake up the next morning. Let your child share what happened during the episode and explain to them that it is not real. It was but a bad dream.
- When your child is completely awake after an episode, offer things that might help them go back to sleep.
- If your toddler is scared to sleep because of nightmares, spend the rest of your bedtime with your child to make them feel calm and safe.
You can teach your child breathing exercises to help them calm down.
How to Prevent Nightmares or Night Terrors?
It is impossible to prevent nightmares and night terrors from happening. What you can do is to prevent the frequency of episodes from happening. Some of these tips may help you:
- Set a sleeping schedule for your toddler
- Have a bedtime routine (taking a bath, reading books)
- Avoid situations that might stress your child
- Avoid letting your child play games, watch videos, or read stories that are too scary for their age
- Have nap times in the daytime to prevent your child from getting overtired
- Always communicate with your child and try your best to explain things that they have trouble understanding
When to Call the Doctor?
If your toddler’s nightmares or night terrors are getting worse and becoming more frequent, it is best to call your pediatrician as soon as possible.
Frequent nightmares or night terrors can make your child feel lethargic and agitated during day time. Recurring episodes make your child’s fears more frightening and disturbing, which may result in serious psychological problems.
Immediately seek professional help to address this situation before it gets worse.
Toddler nightmares or night terrors can be a terrifying experience for your child. Being present during these moments helps your child to feel that you are there for them no matter how scary the situation.
Most children will outgrow nightmares and night terrors when they reach their teenage years. As a parent, all you need to do is encourage your child to be strong and face their fears until this phase is over.
Learn more about Parenting, here.
Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.