How to manage toddler nightmares

Distinguishing between nightmares and night terrors can seem tricky to parents… What’s the difference between the two? Sleep Consultant, Lauren Olson, talks about how to manage these scary night wakings

toddler nightmares

In this guide, we will break down all the mysteries surrounding nightmares vs. night terrors for toddlers including tips on how to avoid them, and how to respond if your child happens to experience one.

NIGHT TERRORS

Night terrors are often characterized by a waking that occurs before midnight, where a child (in a deep stage of sleep) can act as though they are extremely frightened, scared — almost as if they are hallucinating. These “terrors” affect up to 1.5 million toddlers per year, last up to 30 minutes, and can occur every night or at random.  Night terrors can happen to anyone. They are not hereditary, and thankfully, not dangerous. Often a child who experiences a night terror has trouble remembering the incident the following morning, however it’s the parent who’s left with the most trauma, as these wakings can be terrifying.

How to manage night terrors:

  • Do not attempt to wake your child, instead stay as long as the night terror lasts to keep him/her safe in their room
  • If night terrors are a regular occurrence, start keeping a log of exactly what time of night these terrors seem to affect your child. Approximately 30 minutes prior to the average time that they usually happen, go into your child’s room and briefly wake them by stroking their cheek or lightly rubbing their back. This “resets” your child’s sleep cycle, and has been known to reduce terrors by up to 90%.

NIGHTMARES

Nightmares on the other hand, seem to occur mostly after midnight. These disturbing dreams are so vivid, that they can wake children out of a deep sleep. A nightmare generally results in feelings of stress, panic, and fear in young children, and often younger toddlers may experience some trouble differentiating between the dream and reality. They can also be a reaction to stress, family dynamic changes (new baby, new home, new school, death, divorce, etc.), nutritional issues, or a lack of an age-appropriate sleep schedule (leading to an overtired child).

How to manage nightmares:

  • Limit scary movies, television, and social media (like YouTube): Not just before bed, but all together
  • Make sure your baby or toddler is on an age-appropriate schedule. Nightmares can sometimes be caused by skipped naps (3 & under) or going to bed too late. If you’re not sure about whether or not you need a schedule, or how to even start one, visit our article on How to manage baby & toddler sleep transitions. 
  • Install a nightlight or illuminated object for your toddler to look at while he or she falls asleep. If you’re planning on using a nightlight, make sure the light is orange or red which are the best for encouraging sleep. Avoid blue light as this will overstimulate them.
  • Check on them while they fall asleep. If your baby is really scared before going to bed after a scary nightmare, tell them that you’ll leave the door open, and check back on them every 10 minutes (and stick to your promise!)
  • Empower your child when they wake up in the middle of night! Instead of visiting or calling out for you, give them an alternative. This is a big one — don’t go turning on the light and looking for the monster that your toddler claims is under the bed waking him up at night. Instead, have a family picture in the room your child can look at, or give your toddler a special “no bad dreams” stuffed animal.
  • If all else fails, keep your response temporary. Babies and toddlers form sleep habits in 2-3 days, and as long as you aren’t falling back on a recent sleep crutch that you just broke (i.e. sleeping in their bed next to them while they fall asleep), then it’s perfectly fine to bend the rules just once if your child is truly terrified at the thought of falling back asleep alone. Sit in their room, assure them that everything is ok, and tell them you’ll sit in the room/outside the door/watch the monitor until they fall asleep.  Make a cot on your floor and allow an older child to sleep in your room JUST ONCE and then quickly clean it up/put it away the next day so another night isn’t encouraged. Discuss the night fears your child may have during the day, and encourage them to talk and express their bad dreams and why the scenarios in those dreams are unlikely to occur (if they are older enough) in reality. A new change in a young child’s life can often trigger fears or nightmares, such as a recent move or new school, so consider anything big that’s happening in their lives and chat about it.

For more tips and tricks on baby and toddler sleep, follow us at @sleepandthecity, or visit sleepandthecity.com for more information.