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Is my toddler having night terrors?

My toddler wakes up crying and screaming and wants to get in bed with me.

My son is 21 months old and he used to sleep through the night but for months now he hasn't. When he wakes up crying and screaming in the middle of the night he wants to go into bed with me. I dont know if he's having terrors or just wont sleep through the night and wants to be in bed with me. HELP!! 

Charity | Expert


There are many things that can interrupt your child's sleep. Night terrors, nightmares, illness, and teething are a few that come to mind.

There are also many different opinions about what you should do if your child is not sleeping through the night.  Really, how you decide to handle it is entirely a matter of what works best for you and your family.

Set a routine

Sleep routines can be really important to help you child get ready for sleep.  Keeping a consistent napping and nighttime schedule may help him sleep better.  Sticking with a sequence like bath time, story time, and bed time will help.

About night terrors

Night terrors typically can begin around age two and are characterized by screaming, bolting upright, and looking panicked with eyes wide open.  Other symptoms can include sweating, rapid heart rate, and breathing fast.  The child will be inconsolable and seem awake, but will remember nothing about it the next day.  

If your child is indeed having night terrors you may be able to help prevent them by making sure he does not become overtired, so having a regular sleep schedule can be helpful.  Although they seem scary, sleep terrors are not considered serious and most children out grow them.

Different methods abound

Some parent use the "cry it out method" to get their children to sleep throughout the night.  This involves letting the child cry for a specified about of time so that he will learn to put himself back to sleep.  The Ferber method involves putting your son to bed while awake, waiting a specified amount of time and then comforting him by patting him on his back but not picking him up, leaving and repeating until he is asleep.

If he just wants to sleep with you, and you are okay with that, then that's what works for you.  A lot of parents co-sleep and enjoy the bonding experience. 

If he continues to have trouble sleeping, you may want to talk with your pediatrician  just to rule out anything medical.

I know sleep problems can be trying, but as with most things this too will pass. Hang in there!

Read more answers by Charity

Heather | Expert


Our children went through the same things. These episodes would come and go. Our daughter still has nightmares and our son used to have night terrors that were pretty terrifying to him.

A night terror is something that is happening at that moment and the child's screams can wake a household in the middle of the night. These are not only terrifying to the child, but to the parents as well. You cannot wake  children from these or calm them down because they are seeing the thing that is scaring them and not you. All you can do is be there for them until the episode is over and then tuck them into bed. The good news is that children usually don't have a memory of this in the morning.

Nightmares are a bit different. Children will wake up in the night whimpering and crying over a bad dream. They are aware of their surroundings and of a parent's presence and there is some lingering memory of the bad dream. If the child has a nightmare and can communicate, have him or her tell the bad dream to you. You can explain that it was only a dream and didn't happen and then try to get the child to think about something more pleasant. If children are too young to communicate, then give them a hug and reassurance that everything is okay and that you love them.

Comfort in mom and dad's bed

It is appropriate to let your child lay with you, too. When our daughter has a bad dream, she now seeks us out and will lay with me in my arms in my bed for as long as she needs to feel safe again. Sometimes it's five minutes, sometimes a half an hour. She tells me all about it and then lays quietly. I'll ask her periodically if she's ready to go back to bed until she's says she's ready. She then makes her way back to her bed and sleeps until morning.

If your child is not having either of these, then perhaps he just wants you. It is best if you reassure him in his own bed and rub his back or give him a hug. You might need to do this several times until he falls asleep.  Sometimes children just need to know that you are still there in the house to fall back asleep. When children go to bed, the house still has sounds of the parents being up. If they wake in the night, the sounds are much different and can be a little scary. We liked to play classical music very lightly through the night so that if they did wake up, it would calm them back to sleep. Also, it is something that is familiar upon falling asleep to begin with.

Every child is different. Sometimes it takes troubleshooting until you figure what works best for you child. Good luck!

Read more answers by Heather