Experiencing your small child waking up terrified and crying is heartbreaking for parents — you would do anything to banish your children's fears and promise them this big world is a safe place. Nightmares among toddlers are no anomaly, but sometimes the severity can be scary even for you. These cases might actually not be nightmares at all, but something called night terrors. So what does a night terror look like in a toddler? It's pretty terrifying.
Dr. Steve Silvestro, a D.C. area pediatrician and host of The Child Repair Guide Podcast, tells Romper that unlike nightmares, night terrors are actually a result of a disorganized sleep cycle and are in the same family as sleepwalking.
"Night terrors tend to happen earlier in the evening, such as between 11 p.m. to 1 a.m.," Silvestro explains. "A child experiencing a night terror may seem like she wakes up, but she isn't truly fully awake. She will cry and be visibly upset, but won't really respond in any meaningful way to what you do or say. After several minutes of crying without relief, the child will then go back to sleep on her own, no matter what action you might have taken."
According to Silvestro, night terrors tend to happen when kids are overtired — when they've been going to bed later, not sleeping well, or dropping a nap. For some, night terrors are few and far between, but others kids can get stuck in a rut of experiencing them a few times a week, often at the same time each night.
To get out of this rut, Silvestro advises gently waking your child 30 to 60 minutes before the night terror usually happens, then put your child back to sleep. This helps to reset the sleep cycle and can break the pattern altogether. As an extra measure, parents can take care to see that their little one is going to bed on time or maybe even a little earlier than usual for a few days.
It's hard to say what exactly a toddler experiences during a night terror, since they rarely remember them happening the next day, but they can certainly be a scary experience for parents. Practicing a more regimented sleep routine could go a long way in kissing night terrors goodbye and letting you get a peaceful night's sleep, too.