Toddler Sleep – Night Terrors vs Bad Dreams

About a week ago, Dylan did something that was very frightening. It was about ten o’clock at night, and he was asleep in the bedroom. I was in the living room, doing some work on my computer. The house was silent, until all of a sudden, Dylan started screaming. Really screaming, as if someone were torturing him. I rushed into the bedroom, and tried my best to comfort him. I asked him if something were hurting him, and he just thrashed about, mumbling things that made no sense. I tried to hold him close, but he cried even more. Finally, he went back to sleep, only to start screaming again about a half hour later. This happened a few more times, and then he went back to sleep for the night.

The next morning, Dylan had no recollection of any of it. I still felt horrible about it, and I wanted to know what had happened so that I could know what to do if it happened again. When I looked for information about why toddlers might wake up screaming in the middle of the night, I found two possible explanations – night terrors and bad dreams. They may sound like the same thing, but they are different and it is important to know the difference so that you can know what to do to help your toddler.

It is possible to identify night terrors based upon your child’s behavior. One characteristic of night terrors is that you will not be able to awaken your toddler, at least not very easily. Mumbling or saying things that make no sense is also a sign of a night terror, as is thrashing about. A toddler who has been having a bad dream may already be awake when you go in to check on him, or will awaken easily when you try to soothe him. If it is a bad dream and not a night terror, your efforts to soothe him will be effective and he will soon go back to sleep.

From what I understand now, Dylan was having a night terror. Since I did not understand what night terrors were, I responded to the situation as if he were having a bad dream. I went into the room, spoke to him, and tried to cuddle with him. By doing that, I prolonged the experience. If he had been having a bad dream, those very same actions would have soothed him. The correct way to address a night terror is to let it run its course. Do not try to soothe or awaken your toddler, but do stand by to make sure that he does not hurt himself while he is thrashing about. Also, some incidences of night terrors are caused by sleep deprivation, so make sure that your toddler gets plenty of rest.

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