Congratulations. You’ve made it through your baby’s first year, surviving the sleepless nights, midnight feedings, colicky cries and the onslaught of poopy diapers. Now that you’re over the hurdle of babyhood, you settle in for some much needed catch-up sleep, when suddenly, you’re jolted awake by an endless, bloodcurdling scream that has the dog hiding under the bed and you wondering if there’s enough room there to join him. Welcome to the nightmare, or rather the night terror of the sleep disturbed toddler.
Night terrors are nightmares on steroids. Screams that continue even after your child is sitting up, appearing awake, are hallmarks of night terrors. Objects and people could be mistaken for dangers to a child caught up in a night terror and the disorientation can last for up to a half hour. After your child has sufficiently scared you to pieces and caused you to prematurely grey with these antics, he’ll fall back asleep only to wake the next morning with no memory of the event. Fortunately, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) says that most children outgrow night terrors by the time they’re 8 years old. Dr. Sears says that night terrors are inherited in toddlers and don’t indicate that your child has a particularly troubled psyche. He goes on to say that the best thing you can do for your child during an episode is to turn on the lights, talk to him in a calm voice, make sure he doesn’t hurt himself and help him to go back to sleep.
If your child snores louder than a crusty, old sailor, it could be a sign of obstructive sleep apnea syndrome (OSAS). Sleep apnea is marked by loud snoring, gasps and pauses during sleep where breathing seems to stop and then start up again. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends screening all children who snore for OSAS. Talk to your pediatrician if you notice your child snoring or exhibiting OSAS symptoms, which could result in your toddler not getting enough sleep and may lead to behavior or learning delays, growing issues or even cardiovascular problems.
If you’re regularly awakened by the sound of things going bump in the night, you either have a ghost with a case of insomnia in your house, or a toddler who has a night waking problem. While some experts, like the AAFP, claim a firm sleep structure is required to fix the problem, such as a rewards system for staying in bed, and a punishment system for getting out of it; others are not fond of these methods. Dr. Sears, for one, says that parents should first rule out all medical causes of the child getting out of bed at night. Causes such as gastroesophageal reflux, allergies, teething, urinary infections, ear infections or even pinworms should be explored and ruled out by your pediatrician. He recommends trusting your intuition if you think something is wrong with your toddler, especially if your once good sleeper is now waking up at night consistently.
Be mindful of environmental causes that could be disturbing your child’s sleep. Your child could be kicking off his blankets at night and waking up cold. If that’s the case, dress him in flannel PJs or something warmer and skip the blanket. Perhaps there’s too much noise, or not enough sound. Try putting some music next to his crib or play an audiobook, to help him sleep. Make sure your child’s sleeping area is comfortable. Maybe he’s outgrown his crib. If you find your child climbing out of the crib at night, you’ll need to move him into a bed for safety reasons. A new big-kid bed just might be the thing that helps him get back into his groove and lets you both get a good night’s sleep.