Night Terrors Explained

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Here’s a small excerpt from Week 10 of my brand new online Masterclass available exclusively to my Parenting Club Members called ‘The Sue Atkins Toddler System’ around sleep, nightmares and the very distressing night terrors.


Toddlers find it difficult to tell the difference between reality and imagination, so a nightmare can be a very distressing time for them so when a nightmare wakes your child up, you may find them sitting straight up in bed in screaming terror or curled up in a sobbing, miserable ball.

  • Try to  get to your toddler quickly and offer  some loving and reassuring words and cuddles; they  will probably drop off again to sleep  in less than a minute—and not even remember it the next day. If you take more time, however, perhaps thinking that it would be best if they would fall back to sleep on their own, they will become even more terrified and most likely require 15 or 20 minutes or more of comforting.
  • Don’t wear your toddler out to the point of exhaustion during the day or by feeding them a big meal before bed. Over exhaustion or an overly full tummy will cause more restless sleep, not more peaceful sleep.
  • Nightmares most often occur around stress and anxiety. 

 So if your child wakes with a nightmare, try to work out what the main worry or anxiety might be and ask yourself:

  • Have they experienced any major changes recently?
  • Have they had a change in their normal routine – like starting daycare, or nursery, or have you recently had a change in your circumstances like a divorce, redundancy or have you or your partner just start going back to work or spent a night or two away from home?
  • Have you recently had another baby? Or have you just told your toddler that a new baby is on the way?
  • Have you and your child had a battle over their independence – over eating, dressing or brushing their teeth? 
  • You probably can’t magically “fix” any of these lifestyle changes but you can make them easier on your child by being patient, relaxed and loving. By acknowledging and understanding the cause of your toddler’s stress and by offering them loving reassurance, you help to relieve their anxiety and the nightmares naturally disappear.

Night terrors

Night terrors, are technically speaking, caused by your toddler partially waking up during their non-dream sleep and a toddler in this state may cry, whimper, and flail about in their sleep which is distressing to watch but they’re not typically a cause for concern or a sign of a deeper medical issue.

A night terror is a sleep disruption that seems similar to a nightmare, but seems far more dramatic. Though night terrors can be alarming for you to witness them, they’re not typically cause for concern or a sign of a deeper medical issue.Night terrors are different from nightmares as your toddler probably won’t be able to talk about what’s frightened them but they may be afraid to fall back asleep and they may not look really scared, but they may appear really confused.

What causes them?

If your little one is overtired or ill, stressed or fatigued taking a new medication sleeping in a new environment or away from home. Also your child’s imagination is developing, and that can’t help but carry over into their sleeping world and disrupt their sleeping patterns sometimes.

How long do night terrors last? 

 An episode may last anywhere from two or three minutes to around half an hour  and a toddler having a night terror can’t be calmed down so  it can be very frightening  for you because repeated attempts to soothe your little one will have no effect.

Here are some practical tips to handling them.

It’s best to sit nearby and wait for the episode to pass. You can try taking your child into another room as this may bring them into a lighter sleep state but don’t try to jolt them out too quickly. Usually within 15 to 20 minutes your child should have calmed down, curled up, and fallen asleep again.

Often your little one won’t recall the incident in the morning, and it’s best not to remind them of it as it will only make them more anxious around going to sleep. Your toddler’s breathing and heartbeat might be faster, or they might be sweating or thrashing around so relax your own breathing deliberately, and say a calming affirmation like “I’m calm, centred, positive and relaxed” over and over again as you pick them up as this will slow their heartbeat down to match yours.

How to prevent them

Don’t let your toddler go to bed agitated or overtired as they are more likely to suffer these sleep disturbances, so make sure that there’s plenty of time for your own family calming bedtime routines such as bath-time, songs, stories, and lots of cuddles.  

Since night terrors tend to happen in the first part of the night, after your child has been asleep for about two or three hours, you can try to prevent them by gently waking them up about 15 minutes before the typical episode would start. This should alter the sleep pattern and prevent the night terror from creeping into their sleep time.

Understanding night terrors can reduce your worry — and help you get a good night’s sleep yourself. But if night terrors happen repeatedly, talk to your doctor about whether a referral to a sleep specialist is needed.

I also teach the parents I work with Emotional Freedom Technique or ‘tapping‘ to help reduce and alleviate the symptoms.

Click here to learn more about ‘Emotional Freedom Technique’ or “Tapping” Masterclass


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