Toddler Waking Up Screaming: What Do I Need To Do?
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Toddler Waking Up Screaming: What Do I Need To Do?

Do you often find your toddler waking up screaming in the middle of the night?  Little guy has been shouting out in distress, flailing about, and covered in sticky sweat.  As parents, this it not fun to watch.  I have witnessed this too many times and I assure you that it is painful and heart-wrenching.

I felt powerless and helpless because there was nothing I can do to help or console my little one.  Moreover, I also wondered if this is something that needs to be checked by a pediatrician.  If you want to get to the bottom of this issue and help your child, I suggest that you read on.

What is Happening To My Child?

As parents, you will find yourself comforting your little one after experiencing nightmares.  However, night terrors are different.  No matter how you try to console your child, he will never feel comforted.

What are night terrors?  They are interruptions in sleep that are somewhat similar to nightmares but are more emotional and vivid.  They might be disquieting to watch but these do not necessarily entail a trip to the doctor.

How Can You Tell If They Are Night Terrors?

Below are the signs:

  • Rapid breathing
  • Fast heartbeat
  • Screaming in distress
  • Flailing about
  • Sweating
  • Showing signs of fear
  • Sitting upright in bed all of a sudden

Your kid will calm down and go back to sleep after about 10 to 15 minutes (or longer) of exhibiting the symptoms above.

Don’t worry as your child will not remember about the night terror the day after.  The reason is that those happened during their deep sleep so there are no images to recall.

What Can Cause Them?

Your toddler waking up screaming is something that you don’t want to happen over and over again.  For this reason, it is natural that you investigate on what causes it.

Night terrors happen because of the over stimulation of the central nervous system while asleep.

The are different stages of sleep.  Our dreams and nightmares occur during the rapid eye movement or REM stage.  Night terrors, on the other hand, take place during the non-REM stage.  They are not dreams but a manifestation of fear during the progression of one sleep stage to the next.

If you notice, the night terror occurs 2 to 3 hours after your kiddo falls asleep.  This is when sleep transitions from deep non-REM sleep to lighter REM sleep.  More often than not, this is a sleek change.  There are times when your child becomes scared and agitated – this is night terror.

Toddler Waking Up Screaming: Who Are More Prone To This?

Night terrors are commonly observed in kids who are:

  • Consuming new medication
  • Ill or too tired
  • Stressed out
  • Lack or less sleep
  • Far from home or sleeping in a different environment
  • Having excessive caffeine

About 3% to 6% of kids ages 2 to 12 years old go through night terrors, while almost every child get nightmares every now and then.  Babies as young as 18 months old can suffer from them too.  This is more common in boys.

Did you know that night terrors can be inherited?  Approximately 80% of kids who experience them have family members who also have night terrors or sleepwalk.

Your child might go through one night terror or more before this stops.  But don’t worry as these toddler-waking up-screaming episodes will just go away as their nervous system develops.

What Makes Night Terror Different From Nightmares?

They are two different things.

NightmareNight Terrors
Children wake up distressed after this.Children sleep through and don’t remember this happening.
This happens when child is dreaming and lightly sleeping.This happens during deep sleep stage.
It occurs on the second half of the night.It occurs during the first few hours of sleep.

Moreover, nightmares occur more than night terrors.  Thus, you handle them differently.

Can Watching TV Cause Nightmares?

Yes.  Kids have very imaginative minds so anything they see on TV, in books, and experience in real life can be turned into a scary dream when they sleep.  Even the most harmless characters in their favorite TV shows can become monsters in their dreams.

The mind can gather even the smallest details during the day and turn it into the most menacing thing by night.

Our tip is to turn off your TV a few minutes to an hour before your kid’s bedtime.  Doing so will give your child’s mind some time to process everything and shut down after.

What Can I Do To Help?

It hurts to see your toddler waking up screaming.  But the best thing you can do is to wait it out.  Be patient and ensure that your child does not get hurt while flailing about.  As mentioned, they will settle in a few minutes and go back to sleep.

Remember not to wake up your child during this sleep stage.  It will be difficult to wake them from this.  If they do, they will only end up perplexed and it will make it harder for them to sleep again.  There are no medications or treatments for this.  But these are the things that you can do to help:

  • Lessen stress levels
  • Keep child from being too tired
  • Make a bedtime routine that involves calming activities
  • Ensure that your child is well-rested
  • Don’t allow your kid to stay up late

If your child goes out of bed, guide him back and tuck him in.  If his actions become violent and you think he might get hurt in the process, stay by his side so he does not bump on the things near his bed.  It’s also a good idea to wait for your kid to stop moving restlessly before you go back to your room.

Take note of when your child has night terrors.  If it happens the same time every night, wake your child up 15 to 30 minutes before that.  See if this stops the night terrors from happening.  This works on other children so this technique is worth trying.

Knowing night terrors will help you help your child.  This will also give you peace of mind.  

When Should I Get Help?

If toddler waking up screaming is too much or if it is accompanied by breathing problems such as snoring, talk to your child’s pediatrician.  Discuss about getting an ear, nose, and throat assessment.  Also, ask whether you need a referral to a sleep doctor.

It is best if you keep a sleep diary.  Record how often this happens and describe the environment in which your child sleeps in.  Share the diary with your doctor if you think that your child is not sleeping well because of the night terrors, or if it goes on for many months.

We suggest that you bookmark this page so that you will know what to do the next time you encounter your toddler waking up screaming.  Got another problem like toddler climbing out of the crib? You might want to check out this post.

Good luck and we hope that this article can help you better understand what your child is going through.

Elkyra Park

I'm a first time mom who wants to help parents navigate parenthood unscathed. I know being a parent can be all too overwhelming and daunting all at the same time so let's help each other in this exciting journey.
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