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Toddler Transitions & Night Terrors

Toddler Transitions & Night Terrors

By Amalah

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)

Please help!!!!!

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.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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Comments

  • June

    I married into a family with all sorts of lovely sleep issues (talkers, walkers, terrors). My niece still suffered from night terrors/ walking at age 9 so her parents used a baby gate, like Amy said, in front of the door. They’d just close it at night and she was disoriented enough that she couldn’t open it/ climb over. It helped at least keep her safely in her room. The going to bed part is another issue and maybe staying with her until she’s asleep?
    Getting to sleep calmly can help them stay asleep (too much excitement and too little sleep tend to bring them on). Good luck!

  • Bmom

    My older kid and now my 2.5 yr old both had/have night terrors… but the 2.5 yr old also has nightmares. One of the tells for us is what time of night they happen… night terrors are often (though not exclusively) earlier in the night – about 2-3 hours after going to sleep. They’re so hard – good luck!!

  • Myriam

    I’d try the sleep lady shuffle for the bedtime. It’ll reassure her and give you a way to slowly decrease your involvement. And I think the food issue is related to the bedtime issue. She’s trying to control her surroundings in the only way she can: food, sleep and potty. For the food, look up Amy’s advice on the division of responsibility by Ellyn Satter.

  • Kate

    My 2 yr-old recently went through this after starting preschool part-time, having formerly been with a nanny full-time. Night terrors, sleep regression, extreme anxiety, the works. Finding a few age-appropriate books about going to preschool and separation from mama and reading them during the day (not at bedtime, which raised his anxiety) helped give him language to describe his feelings. We also talked A LOT about school, bedtime, transitions, separation, etc. He ultimately came up with a mantra we use all the time now–at preschool drop-off, bedtime, naptime, and any time–“Mama always comes back!” It’s simple, but it works, and he got there on his own, which I think was key. 

  • S

    I know this one!

    1. Melatonin. It doesn’t have to be forever, just to set the tone while you fix everything to a short routine and bam tired and asleep.
    2. Lully. Google this product for the night terrors.

    • Jodie

      Melatonin got us through a particularly rough patch with our middle daughter.  Seemed to start her cycle early enough that she avoided the trouble window

  • MR

    Ugh. Night terrors. Those suck! My niece had them when she was about the same age, but hers were the “bolt upright in bed screaming bloody murder with her eyes closed and screaming nonstop for 15 minutes before suddenly lying back down and being out” variety. So, when my 6 year old started getting them, it took me a while to figure it out. I would wake up to her sobbing and pacing back and forth near her bed or in the hallway. Usually, she would have wet her pants (she had long been night potty trained, so this was unusual). She would also talk to me and respond. She was on the top bunk at that time, so she was climbing down the ladder and everything, all while asleep. It happened 3-4 times before I finally figured out that she wasn’t actually awake. It was the weirdest thing because her eyes were open, and she’d respond to my questions, but she seemed confused. In our case, it always seemed to happen when she had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. So, she’d start to head to the potty, but wasn’t awake enough to actually get there. I figured this out after one time of finding her pacing back and forth in front of the potty, crying hysterically, I helped her get her wet clothes off and into dry panties, but didn’t bother with new pajama bottoms, because I had noticed that the faster I could get her back into bed, the shorter these episodes lasted, and I was beginning to realize she wasn’t really awake, although I asked her and she indignantly told me, “Of COURSE I’m awake!” But the next morning, she came out and was very upset, “Somebody took my PANTS!” I couldn’t help it, the way she said it, I started laughing. When I told her what had happened, she didn’t believe me at first, she had absolutely no memory of it. But, in our case, it always involved her needing to go potty, so I was able to figure out that if I heard her and got her to the bathroom and back to bed as fast as possible, we wouldn’t need to change her clothes, and she’d be back to sleep. This happened on and off for about a year, and then she just outgrew it. I also noticed that the busier days were the ones where this was more likely. So, definitely look for patterns, and don’t assume she’s awake, even if she is responding. Amy is absolutely right, that being quieter, keeping the lights off, and minimal contact do help. I just kind of pulled on her pajamas a bit to guide her back to bed once I figured out what was happening. GL!

  • Kacy

    Unlike your daughter, my son has never been a good sleeper. He wakes up screaming just like you describe, but will talk to you and answer questions. It feels like an almost night terror but not quite. Touching him seems to make it worse, but he definitely wants us close by.

    Contrary to most night terror advice I’ve read, I find the best way to help him is to turn on the lights and talk to him and engage him until he is fully awake. Then we offer water and a snack, take him to the bathroom (he almost always has to pee and it seems to help him calm down), and maybe read a book and essentially redo our bedtime routine. Doing this will take ~5-10 minutes, but without waking him up all the way, he’ll scream and scream and seem like he’s calming down only to ramp himself back up again sometimes for an hour or more.

    • Zilly

      I have no experience with any of this, but I googled the Lully (as a comment above suggested) and it sounds like it may be helpful for you. It’s a little pod that vibrates to keep your child in a terror-free level of sleep (so you don’t have to redo your bedtime routine).

  • Becky

    Mostly the same as kacy here…Our daughter is the same age as yours and very similar to what you describe…but can remember some of what happens the next morning which makes me think she screams herself awake. I have found that staying soft and quiet and gentle but dealing with it sort of rationally like I would daytime tantrums (but on a much softer/lenient way) has really really helped. It seems to help her having a definitive ‘hook’ to her request to hold onto, eg if she wants a particular random toy, me repeating “yes, we can play with it in the morning. I’m so looking forward to playing with X in the morning after breakfast.” “I want x!” “When can we play with it?” “Tomorrow after breakfast”. Basically I found pandering to her random requests or leaving her made things soooooo much worse.

    But yeah it sucks. They have definitely reduced in frequency since we have started doing it this way. It’s almost like she is sorting through things in her mind and so us helping ground her enables her to do that.

    Yes to hunger being an issue possibly too. And back molars.

    And YES to helping her verbally process everything during the day. We play with play doh and reenact situations that she is struggling to piece together, but books etc can help x

  • shayna

    We had the same issue, minus the big-girl bed transition – a previously excellent sleeper suddenly off the rails with night terrors and confusional arousal (which is basically just night terrors “lite”) at two and a half. I thought we were all going to lose it but then after several months, it… passed. Like the others have said, there’s really nothing you can do if they’re not actually awake, and we were unknowingly making our episodes worse by trying to console her – all that meant was that, at the end of the screaming, she’d wake up instead of going back to sleep and prolonging the whole thing.

    Now I’m careful to make sure she’s actually awake before intervening and things more or less petered out on their own (but it’s my understanding that the terrors could come back, and the related sleep-talking – which my husband and I both did as kids – has picked up steam.) Good luck and hope you can all get some sleep soon.

  • S

    What is the advice when the kid *is* hurting themself?

    • At that point, you simply have to intervene appropriately. Move them to a different/safer area (like if they’re banging their head in the crib, take them to your bed or put them in the middle of a rug), restrain or attempt to redirect their path if they’re sleepwalking about about to fall or trip over something, etc. Be prepared that the physical contact will freak them out even more and might prolong the terror, but obviously you can’t just sit there and do nothing if there’s a physical injury about to happen. 

  • Julie

    Our son had night terrors, starting at about this same age. We realized it happened most often when he was overtired. Putting him to bed 30 minutes earlier, especially if he’d had a short nap that day, helped. He also usually had to pee – so making sure he did that right before bed helped, too.

  • Margarita

    Thanks for all your comments moms and dads! We put a gate up and it worked wonders! I wish we had done it sooner. She cries a bit after j leave- but then she’ll play by herself for however long she needs and falls asleep. First few nights she woke up screaming and fell asleep by the gate. But after the 3D night she stopped. Now if she does wake up crying it lasts maybe 5min and she never leaves her bed. Wonders I tell you!!

    (Side note- we had tried melatonin- helped her fall asleep quickly but she still woke up often. Also tried the Lully which also did diddly squat.

    She popped 2 more teeth so her eating also got better which helped the sleep too