Does your baby, toddler, or child experience nightmares, night terrors, confusional arousals or sleepwalking? These solutions will help bring relief to your little ones.
I am no stranger to sleep walking.
When I was a teenager my mother would find me, at various times, in different rooms of the house. Maybe I’d be eating, talking, or trying to use the bathroom in the sink.
That’s her story.
I cannot confirm or deny. Why? Because sleepwalking, as we’ll get to, means my asleep and awake signals were crossed and – well – I can’t remember any of it.
And if your children are sleepwalking or having night terrors, neither can they.
We’ll cover all you need to know about nightmares, night terrors, sleepwalking, and what to do about it.
But first, before we do that, let’s find out the differences between these. And remember, these issues can also contribute to some serious bedtime battles, so this post may solve two issues.
The difference between nightmares, night terrors and sleepwalking
So far, all 5 of my children have had nightmares. 2 of my children have had infrequent night terrors. And 2 of my children have (and still do, on occasion) sleep walked.
As part of my baby sleep consultant training we were required to dig into this issue because it’s important to know the difference as you respond differently to each.
Read: Is Sleep Training a Baby Bad or Dangerous? Let’s Talk Facts!
Nightmares are dreams that cause your babies, toddlers, or children to be afraid. These nightmares occur during REM sleep and, therefore, typically happen after midnight and closer to early morning.
Your children can remember their nightmares after they wake up and, upon waking, they feel scared.
Night terrors are confusional arousals (more on that below) that happen to your toddlers and older children when the first or second sleep cycle is coming to an end and, therefore, happen within a few hours of going to sleep, typically before midnight.
Your children do not remember their night terrors after they wake up and, upon waking, they seem calm and ready to go back to sleep.
Sleepwalking in children, like night terrors, are confusional arousals that happen at the end of deep stage 4 sleep (the deepest stage of sleep) and, again, typically within a few hours of going to sleep.
They are similar to night terrors in their casuse, but are typically more calm. When your child wakes up, they do not remember sleep walking and are generally placid and ready to go back to sleep.
Learn how to space naps, how many a day per age, best times, etc. and get your nap game ON!
Confusional arousals and what they are
Essentially, if something is going on with your child in their sleep and they won’t wake up easily and are acting distressed or odd… they’re likely experiencing a confusional arousal.
When your child is trying to transition from a very deep sleep to a lighter one, if the deep sleep doesn’t want to “give way” to the lighter sleep, a confusional arousal happens. Ferber describes it like this…
“When you watch a confusional event unfold, you are seeing the simultaneous functioning of your child’s waking and sleep systems.
The waking system is trying to activate, and the sleep system does not “want” to yield control. Both processes are going on at the same time, so the child shows elements both of being awake and of being asleep at the same time.”
Essentially, they’re both asleep and awake. Their brain is having a power struggle, fighting over which part is in control. As such, they are acting awake while half asleep.
Read: Why frequent night wakings actually make you crazy
What confusional arousals may look like…
Here are some examples of typical confusional arousals. Note that some are more severe than others.
Confusional arousals run the gamut from calming sitting up right with the eyes open to running around a room throwing things.
- Sleep talking
- Child sitting up in bed or crib, looking around, weird expression
- Calm sleepwalking (going around the bedroom or house appearing to look for something, talking calmly, but without really saying much)
- Sleepwalking that is agitated. Child may be jumpy, confused, seem scared, want to get away from something or shouting “stop” or “leave me alone”, etc.
- Night terrors which look like thrashing, kicking, crying, fussing in bed that is inconsolable, seeming to panic. Older children may try to run away.
Read: The Top 10 Indicators It’s Time to Sleep Train
Night terrors and their potential causes
If your child is sitting up in their crib or bed or calling out to you, thrashing, crying, fussing, pushing towards you, then pulling away….
These are night terrors.
Your child acts confused, angry, and upset
They seem upset, panicked, angry. They may even talk to you or request something.
“No mommy, want daddy!”
Or “I want my teddy!” then you hand over the teddy and they throw it down immediately. They may ask for the pacifier, then refuse it. It’s sudden, severe, and very alarming for parents.
Particularly if you think your child is feeling emotionally scared, as they would while awake. Luckily, they are not.
They are irritable, inconsolable, and nearly impossible to wake. In fact, trying to wake them up will not work and will likely make it last longer and become more intense in duration.
- Night terrors can be caused by over tiredness. When your child is trying to transition from deep to lighter sleep, the deep sleep doesn’t want to give way because your child is exhausted and has a sleep deficit.
- Sudden noises or sounds can trigger sleep terrors. An environmental change can cause a child’s brain to want to wake them up, which can try to pull them out of the deep sleep and put them into confusional arousal.
- Age factors in. Younger children (toddlers and preschoolers) have non-REM sleep that’s deeper than older children so the internal mechanisms that pull a child from deeper to lighter sleep don’t quite get them out of the deep sleep state.
My daughter would have night terrors on nights she skipped a nap. She’d cry, be angry, push me away, then grab for me, demand things, then throw them.
Before I realized what it was I thought she was awake and being unreasonable so I became quite angry. I thought they would go away if I responded well in the moment, but turns out it’s not what we do in the moment that makes them go away.
Sleepwalking In Children… similar to night terrors but more calm
Sleepwalking in children is basically another form of confusional arousal. This typically occurs in children old enough to get out of their bed and walk around.
They have state confusion, meaning they are not fully in the awake state nor in the sleep state, and usually wander around appearing to look for something or someone.
You help lessen and sleepwalking in children the same way you do with other confusional arousals, like sleep terrors.
Read: Foolproof Baby Sleep Tips — Routines, Habits & Strategies
How to lessen the frequency of confusional arousals
There are a few ways to make sure your child has less sleep terrors, and they’re basic and simple. That’s good news!
First off, your child needs an appropriate sleep routine for their age. They need to be able to get to sleep easily without the parent needing to jump through hoops.
Create sustainable sleep habits for your little lamb so the whole family can sleep peacefully without the stress, drama, and tears.Learn More
Here are sample sleep schedules
Night terrors and sleepwalking in children and kids – what to do (or not to do)
- Help your child get enough rest | Move bedtime up, develop an age appropriate routine that gives your baby, toddler, preschooler, and older child enough time to rest and some down time.
- Make sure your child doesn’t have a job to do while asleep |If your child goes to sleep in a different environment in which they wake up in (if you transfer them, lie with them then get up, etc.) then they may wake frequently to check on something. They’ll sleep better without jobs. You can get rid of all their jobs by starting and continuing sleep training until sleep disruptions stop.
- Don’t fight your child or try to wake them up | It’s difficult, if not impossible, to wake them up during a confusional arousal so don’t shake them or yell. Remember, they will not remember this and are not emotionally distressed as they would be if awake. Remain nearby to make sure they are safe, and wait it out.
- Don’t bring up the event the next day | Because your child is not awake, they will not remember these events. If you bring them up it could cause distress which could lead to more arousals.
- Tweak your bedtime | Here’s a list of suggested baby bedtimes, but once your child is older it can take some trial and error to find a good time. You don’t want an overtired child, but you don’t want to put them to bed so early they associate bedtime with negative feelings their room.
- Create a calm bedtime routine | If your wind down routines involves any “jobs” your child may wake up at night to try and continue them. Read a book, pray, sing, turn on white noise, and then leave and let your child go to sleep on their own.
Nightmares, on the other hand, are not confusional arousals. They occur not during a transition from one sleep cycle to another, but during REM sleep.
Your child is fully asleep when these happen and during or after the nightmare, your child wakes up frightened. They remember what they dreamed and usually want comfort before they go back to sleep.
They remember what happened and, if you ask the next morning, they remember dreaming and calling for you.
Nightmares in children – how to help prevent them
No one is quite sure if babies can have nightmares, but they do occur during the second year of life without a doubt. Toddler nightmares are fairly common, and younger children on up through elementary age experience them quite frequently as well.
Experts agree that nightmares are caused by and reflect emotional conflicts that arise from a child’s life. The normal struggles that happen within families, their developmental state, and particularly any recent events or experiences from the day time life.
This is why toddler nightmares are so common… developmental changes are happening so quickly and they are being exposed to so many new things.
Events that can trigger toddler nightmares (and nightmares in older children as well)
- Personal illness, illness in the family, or medication
- Starting daycare, school, getting new babysitter or carer
- Parents going out of town, starting a new job, leaving for longer periods
- Potty training (children can become up set if they have accidents)
- Traumatic event (divorce, death of loved one, incident at school or day care)
- Big recent change (new sibling, new house)
- Anything a child finds frightening
A stable and consistent daily routine will help your little one find predictability throughout their day. These boundaries actually increase security in kids.
I have 25+ sample daily routines here for kids aged 6 weeks to 5 years (including multiple children as well). Your child needs enough sleep they aren’t overtired so their emotions aren’t strained and their reactions not over-reactive.
This will help them process their daily life, new events, and current relationships with more ease and less frustration.
Get my cheat sheets and find your family’s groove. Chore, independent play, meal, nap, bedtime, and MORE routine ideas!
Work through emotions during the day
When my son was 3 we had an incident outside that caused him alarm. We got the golf cart stuck then, when we tried to pull it out with the truck, we got the truck stuck.
Afterwards, any time something seemed “stuck” he was distressed. Getting ‘stuck’ triggers major reactions from him.
You might see something similar with another life event. Work through these during the day to help prevent nightmares.
- Talk with your child about the event or emotion. Avoidance doesn’t work.
- Encourage your child to draw or color their feelings or mood. This is enlightening.
- Read books that are appropriate. Ask questions and let them speak freely.
- Do parent led play time with your child and see what patterns emerge.
Screens can cause disruption in children’s sleep if they spend too much time in front of them. Particularly if they are viewing or playing something right before naps or bedtime.
Additionally, shows or movies can introduce topics or issues into children’s minds they then need to process or work out. It can lead to distress and nightmares.
Screens and games are particularly causative in toddler nightmares, so limit screen time. Instead, find other screen free activities. Here are 40+ screen free activities that are simple and easy.
Summary… how to minimize night terrors, sleepwalking in children, and nightmares
As with most things in early childhood, the key to the nighttime hours is the daytime hours.
Avoid lack of routine that makes overtired children.
Create boundaries and limits that keep everyone in the home well rested.
Respond appropriately in the evening (comfort for nightmares, waiting out and protecting the child during confusional arousals) and address the issue in the day time.
A combination of all of the above factors. Overtiredness, confusional arousal due to difficulty in sleep cycles, and “over helping” by parents which can lengthen the terrors.
Unlike with nightmares, children are not awake for their terrors and intense intervention will actually prolong the event. Remaining with your child to make sure they are okay is fine, but trying to shake them or wake them up will not work.
If you follow my principles and make sure they are well rested, able to transition through their sleep cycles without interruption, and don’t make a big deal out of it, then yes, they likely will.
NO! They are a sign your child might be overtired, unable to transition through deeper and lighter sleep cycles, and a few other reasons. But no, they aren’t mentally ill though they make you feel crazy.
You don’t! In fact, you basically can’t. It will make you crazy and prolong the event.
Toddlers can thrash, scream, cry, whine, get out of bed, walk around and talk incoherently, and otherwise act sort of “awake but out of it.”
Mama Kels says
One of our children suffered from night terrors around age 6 and we discovered it was because he needed to pee but was sound asleep!! We finally figured out to carefully carry him to the toilet and reassure him that he could go pee because he was on the potty, and after a few times of doing that I guess his body figured it out and he’s not had an incident since then!
Rachel Norman says
That’s so interesting. Yes, it was like he was in deep sleep but his body tried to wake up because he needed to potty, but he wasn’t fully waking up to make it happen! Great insight :)
Hi, this was such an interesting post to read. My daughter who is now 3 has had night terrors for a long time, and we realised this happened whenever she didn’t nap. Even though we would put her to sleep earlier. And she would just seem so restless too. What’s a good wake time and bedtime for a 3 year old who doesn’t nap?
Rachel Norman says
Exactly, it’s very often night terrors happening when naps are dropped or missed!
My five year old has just started kindergarten and night terrors/sleep terrors. He’s had them for about 2.5 weeks and he functions fine and we don’t want to medicate as some drs suggest. I’m concerned for his sleeping! Any suggestion to ease these and back to our healthy happy little dude?