Toddler Transitions & Night Terrors
Hi Amy –
We need help! I tried searching through the archives, but couldn’t find exactly what I needed to deal with this.
My husband and I have a 2.5 y/o girl. Until about 3 months ago, she was an excellent sleeper. We would read a book or 2 to her, turn off the light, close the door – and peace out. She would play for maybe 10-30 more minutes on her own in bed, but was quiet, and slept from 8pm until 6:30/7am every day.
About 3 months before our 2nd was born (who is now 3 months old), we switched the now 2.5 y/o into a twin-size bed, and the transition couldn’t go smoother.
A week after our new baby was born – we were crazy and moved into a new home. And a month after that, the now 2.5 y/o started preschool (she was always with a nanny before).
It’s a lot of changes – we know!
A week after moving into the new house…the sleep problems started. All of a sudden she was screaming bloody murder when trying to get her to go to sleep and would not calm down. Once she did go to sleep – she was waking up screaming multiple times a night – and could not be calmed down. Perhaps this was night terrors – except that she would respond to us. But she couldn’t be calmed down.
Eventually, we managed to get her to fall asleep without crying at night. However, it requires multiple books readings, water, milk, hand holding, sitting by her holding her hand, keeping her from turning off the light, putting on a different PJ outfit so that she can’t take the current one off (complete with diaper). I try to walk out of the room and let her fend for herself – but she’ll run out of the room and into our bed – or even into the large armchair in her sister’s room. It also takes over 2 hours to get her to sleep. We start at 7:15/7:30 pm, and we’re lucky if she’s asleep by 9:30pm (which is a step up from 11….). At some point we let her do that – as long as she wasn’t screaming. That worked for about a week.
To top it all off -she’s waking up at night again screaming and going crazy. She can’t be consoled. She tries to run around the house. She asks for everything in sight and doesn’t actually want it. She does respond to us, but touching her makes it worse. The screaming happens multiple times a night! Obviously she’s not getting normal sleep. (Her eating habits are also all over the place right now which is an entire separate issue). Some nights she’ll only wake up once and crawl into our bed with no issues. Other nights (like last night), she’s literally awake and screaming every 1-2hrs.
We’ve put off any thoughts of potty training at this point.
Her naps are excellent! She sleeps 12:30-2:30 at school, and home on the weekends – with no problems!
(in the meanwhile, our 3 month old is sleeping better than the 2 y/o)
Yep, that’s a night terror. She’s not actually awake. Her “responding” to you is probably more of a reflex or part of her general disorientation, or you guys have managed to get her slightly awake by that point.
All the heaps of rapid-fire changes in her life — new bed, sibling, school AND house!! — have caught up with her and triggered a fairly textbook case of toddler night terrors. For some 2/3 year olds, just ONE of the changes/upheavals I listed would be enough to bring them on. She’s likely missing her nanny, her old house and bed, and dealing with all the general anxiety that little kids are prone to, separation issues and sibling jealousy and so on. And sleep deprivation is ANOTHER big trigger, so it makes sense that she’s suddenly having more terrors now that she’s routinely fighting sleep for so many hours. Lucky you!
So what do you DO about night terrors? Well. Nothing. Do NOT intervene, unless there’s a risk of her hurting herself. Do not make a sound, no comforting or consoling. No saying her name and DEFINITELY no touching. This all makes it so much worse, I swear, and feel free to Google-check me with the sleep experts. Childproof her room and maybe barricade her in with a sturdy, thrash-proof baby gate. (I’m not a fan of locking doors in kids’ rooms, for safety reasons in case of emergencies. She’s more easily accessible with a gate.) And then let her scream and run around her room and be crazy until the terror runs its course. She’ll likely drop back to sleep (well, technically she’s asleep the entire time, but you know what I mean) completely on her own. She also won’t remember any of it. Night terrors are, well, terrifying to witness and I know it goes against every instinct to NOT reach out and try to cuddle/restrain a hysterical, screaming, panicked child, but you just have to let her be, and let her brain work through it.
Keep a diary of the terrors, how often they happen, at what time of night, and how long they last (again, with zero interference from you, unless she’s going to injure herself). See if there’s any pattern — if she’s usually having one around midnight, you can try waking her up and offering her a sip of water around 11:45, or just sort semi-rousing her a little bit so she’s not completely awake. But if there’s no pattern, you’re going to have to wake up, go and observe her passively while she screams until she stops.
If she can’t be confined to her room, you’ll have to follow her around the house while she sleep-runs, ignoring her nonsensical requests in total silence, only intervening in case she’s in danger of getting hurt. Once the terror ends, if she drops to sleep somewhere other than her room, gently pick her up and move her back to bed. (Since she has no memories of the terror, letting her wake up somewhere different than where she fell asleep can be a little scary and disorienting.)
In the meantime, try to get her to talk more about her feelings. About the move, her new school, things she misses or feels sad about. Assure her that it’s OKAY to feel sad or scared or angry. Keep the bedtime routine consistent — although I’m tempted to say you should shorten it and eliminate some of the extra steps you’ve added, because they MIGHT actually just be prolonging a night time bout of separation anxiety. But keep a LOT of physical contact and reassurance in there. She can come find you if she has a nightmare (which is a whole different thing, but lots of kids with night terrors are also prone to bad dreams) or feels scared or sad or whatever. (Note that if you install a gate on her room you’ll need to provide her with a way to contact you, like a baby monitor. She might actually find that comforting to take to bed with her!)
Good luck! This SHOULD pass, now that the barrage of big life changes are behind her. She’ll acclimate to her new surroundings in time. My youngest started sleepwalking right after we moved two months ago. That stopped within a few weeks but he still comes and crawls into our bed at some point several times a week, claiming bad dreams. A much more straightforward problem than what you’re dealing with, but rooted in the same place. Give her as much love and attention and reassurance during the day as you can, read books about feelings and big changes and talk about them with her, etc. And then at night, when the screaming starts, go silent and hands off.Published October 21, 2015. Last updated July 16, 2017.