How to Handle Toddler Night Terrors

By Michele Norfleet
Watching a toddler sleep peacefully is reassuring to parents.

Your toddler has finally fallen asleep. Suddenly you hear him screaming and crying uncontrollably. You rush to his room to find him kicking and thrashing about. Any efforts you make to console him are of no use. As difficult as this scene is, don’t panic. Your child is probably having a night terror, which occur in about 2 percent of children and most are ages 1 to 8, according to the article, "I Think My Child is Having Night Terrors" on the Ask Dr. Sears website. Although there is little you can do for your child during an episode, understanding night terrors can help you cope with the situation calmly.

Riding Out the Terror

Stay calm. Although it is difficult to sit by while your toddler is crying uncontrollably, and thrashing about, in night terrors these things are normal. There is little you can do to comfort your child. He may seem to be awake but he is not and is unaware of your presence. Knowing that the episode lasts for a short period -- only a few minutes to 30 minutes at the most -- will help you remain calm through the episode.

Remain with your child. Even though there is no comfort you can provide, stay with him throughout the episode to ensure he does not harm himself. If he gets out of bed, gently guide him away from doors, windows or any harmful objects. When the night terror ends, lay him back down in his bed.

Wait it out. Don’t try to wake him up. The episode will end on its own and your child will go back to a relaxed sleep. He will not remember the episode the next morning.

Alert babysitters and family members of the possibility of a night terror episode. Give them instructions for dealing with the situation, as it can be frightening to those unfamiliar with the experience.

Prevention

Keep your child on a regular sleep schedule. Night terrors may be triggered when children are overly tired or sleep deprived. Establish a bedtime and stick with it.

Intervene if night terrors persist. Although most toddlers outgrow them, the Ask Dr. Sears website suggests a possible intervention.

Keep a sleep log, writing down the time your toddler falls asleep and the time of the episode. Night terrors typically occur 90 minutes after the child falls asleep.

Get your child up 15 minutes before the expected time of the night terror. Walk him around for 5 minutes. Then, return him to his bed.

Continue this procedure for seven consecutive nights to disrupt the routine. Repeat the procedure if night terrors recur.

Tip

Always consult your pediatrician for recommendations if you have concerns about your toddler's night terrors.

About the Author

Michele Norfleet is a freelance writer who writes on travel, home and garden and education topics. She has coauthored a handbook for teachers on school-wide discipline and has contributed tips for special-needs students in the basal curriculum for RCL Benziger. Norfleet holds a master's degree from Southern Illinois University and has experience as a special-needs teacher and speech pathologist.