Many moms dread the sound of their little sleeping beauty waking distressed from a peaceful sleep. These so-called night awakenings can occur at any age, but cause the most anguish between late infancy through the preschool years, according to the Cleveland Clinic. The minds of toddlers are not only running wild during the day, but also at night when your little man dreams of fighting a fire-breathing dragon or climbing the world’s tallest mountain. When these frightening scenarios are fulfilled in your child’s dreams, they can result in nightmares. Night awakenings might not just be the result of your toddler’s overactive imagination. Some children experience sleep interruptions because of illnesses or medical disorders, learned hunger, sleep habits or environmental factors.
Night terrors are often scarier for you than for your screaming, inconsolable toddler. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, pavor nocturnus, or night terrors, occur about 90 minutes after a child falls asleep. During a night terror episode, the toddler is only semi-awake, and might respond to the sleep interruption with kicking, screaming, thrashing, walking, mumbling or a sense of panic. Even a bowl of Chunky Monkey ice cream will not calm your tot until the sleep terror is over — normally about 10 to 30 minutes later. Parents can help their child through a night terror by directing him back to bed, holding him if it makes him feel better, and turning on a light to make the scary shadows disappear.
Nightmares are often confused with night terrors, but some major differences exist between the two. One of the main differences is your tot will usually remember a nightmare, but will not remember a night terror. While it might seem cute when your toddler wakes you to tell you that a six-eyed dog with hair made of spaghetti chased him around the bathroom, the experience is real for young children who have difficulty separating real life from make-believe. Nightmares usually occur within the last few hours of sleep, or REM sleep. Parents can help children battle their spaghetti monsters by reassuring them and talking about their bad dreams the next day.
Night awakenings in toddlers are often blamed on night terrors or nightmares, but underlying reasons might exist for your child’s lack of sleep — and crankiness the next day. Sleep disorders are a probable cause, including common conditions such as sleep apnea, which results in poor breathing as your little one rests. No, your little man is not supposed to snore like a Tonka truck, but when conditions such as sleep apnea disturb his breathing, it can sound as though your child is gasping, snorting, choking or snoring loudly. Children who frequently cough throughout the night might suffer from medical disorders such as asthma. Acid reflux is another concern when your child is waking frequently from a deep sleep, and can cause your sleeping angel belly pain and even vomiting. If you notice your child displaying odd behavior while he’s asleep, apart from him talking to make-believe animals or singing with Mickey Mouse, contact your child’s pediatrician.
Toddlers often get used to certain sleep habits, such as falling asleep while mom sings, “This Little Light of Mine” or as dad yells at the big screen during a football game. When these environmental factors are removed, your child might suffer from interrupted sleep. Learned hunger is a common problem in younger toddlers, caused when parents provide the child with bottles of milk or nursing throughout the night. If your child is constantly falling asleep with a bottle of his favorite warm milk, he might awaken looking for his “fix.” The same applies to any type of sleep habit, whether it’s mom allowing her baby to fall asleep in her lap or dad allowing the TV to run throughout the night. Parents can help their sleep-deprived teenyboppers get the shut-eye they need by ensuring that their tot goes to bed at a decent time and not running to their bedside with every whine or whimper. While your toddler might make a fuss for a night or two, the sleep awakenings will most likely cease after a week.