Meg Faure, OT, author, baby expert & Founder of Parent Sense
When your baby wakes screaming with a night terror, it can feel really scary. One minute your baby is sleeping peacefully and the next they’re distressed and crying but not responding to you. So, what are night terrors and what can you do if your baby has them?
It’s sometimes tricky for parents to know the difference between night terrors and nightmares. Nightmares only really start once your little one’s imagination and language skills have begun to develop. This is because they need to be able to hold a mental picture of something in their minds and connect it to a symbol that feels scary. While night terrors are less about imagination and visualisation and more of a fearful state.
One way to distinguish between night terrors and nightmares is by your baby’s age. Because little ones start to develop the ability to associate thoughts with words and emotions between 12 and 24 months, imagination and therefore true nightmares generally only occur from 18 months onwards. If your baby is younger and wake screaming in terror, they are most likely experiencing night terrors.
What are night terrors?
Night terrors typically occur in the first third of a baby’s night sleep cycle. Your baby may appear to ‘wake’ during the night and:
- sit up in their cot
- seem afraid but not awake
- cry, scream or shout
- be difficult to wake up
These episodes can be brief but sometimes last 45 minutes or more. Afterwards, your baby will show no sign of remembering the terror and continue sleeping peacefully.
Doctors aren’t entirely sure why night terrors happen, but there is literature and research that link night terrors to overstimulation. If you’ve had a busy day and/or your little ones missed a sleep or slept for less time than usual, they are probably overtired. When your baby’s sensory system is overwhelmed – it kicks into overdrive, and you are likely to end up with a baby who won’t settle to sleep without a fuss.
Night terrors are also more likely at those cusp ages when your baby’s day sleeping schedule changes. That could be at 9 months when you drop from three sleeps to two, and at 12 to 14 months when you go from two day sleeps to one. And as your toddler gets old enough to drop their day sleep altogether, you may notice an increase in the amount of night terrors over that period.
What to do about night terrors?
Night terrors can continue to happen well into the toddler years so it’s important to know how to deal with them.
Prevention is the best way to deal with night terrors and that means avoiding overstimulation. Here are some ways to prevent overstimulation:
- Ensure that your baby is getting regular, adequate day sleeps.
- Be sure that your baby’s awake window before bedtime is not too long. Awake windows change as your baby grows and it’s a fantastic way to help your baby remain calm, happy and in routine.
- Watch for signs of tiredness like wiping their eyes, yawning, fussing, pulling their legs up or stiffening their body.
If your baby is actively having a night terror it is important that you don’t try to wake your little one. Their eyes can be open, and they can be screaming and appear to be awake, but they are actually fast asleep. Don’t try to wake them or speak to them, instead apply the sensory principle of deep pressure. You can do this in one of two ways:
Holding your baby snuggly or if they are still in their sleep space, placing your hands on them and applying pressure can help them to settle. Their overwhelmed sensory system responds to the calming, soothing sensation of deep pressure.
If your little one is experiencing frequent night terrors, you can also try covering them in a weighted blanket at bedtime. The weight of the blanket also gives little ones the sense of deep pressure and knowing where their body is in the space around them. This comforting feeling can make all the difference between a peaceful sleep and recurring night terrors.
For an easy way to get your baby into a smart routine that prevents overstimulation, download the Parent Sense app. It’s the all-in-one baby app that takes the guesswork out of parenting and guides you through the first precious year of your baby’s life.