This post started with the question from a mom about her daughter, who woke up screaming every night. I answered and then the comments started rolling in. A lot of young toddlers wake up at night! If you recognize the situation, take a moment to read and also share your own situation!
My daughter will be 3 years old in March and right now she wakes up every night between midnight and 4am screaming as loud as she can.
A few nights when I go get her, she screams that she wants to watch the Doodlebops. Other nights she screams she wants to go outside and play. She screams non-stop for a good hour and NOTHING will calm her down.
What can I do?
She has been on a strict routine since she came home from the hospital, so nothing has changed about her daily lifestyle. She goes to bed every night between 8 and 9pm and she still takes a 2-3hr nap every afternoon.
She also talks/walks in her sleep if that makes any difference.
Thanks, Pamela from New Albany, IN, USABaby Helpline:
Screaming Toddler At Night – Night Terrors Or Not And A Few Tips
It sounds like an exhausting time for you! It is really hard to know what is going on in the minds of our young children. Sleep time is the time we process all the events of the day, the time we connect back into our inner wisdom, and dreaming is a really important part of that process. It sounds like your daughter is working pretty hard at night!
It’s difficult for me to say what might be underlying it all, and it sounds like you have good routines in place for bedtime etc.
Sleep talking and walking are all a part of her brain not quite having the boundaries in place that we normally do when going to sleep. So it is giving her body messages to partly act out what is happening in her dreams, ie talking, walking somewhere. Apart from keeping her safe – barriers over stairs and locks on the doors for example – it is not something to be unduly worried about. She may grow out of it, although some adults still sleepwalk!
Night terrors or nightmare
Regarding the screaming, since her sleeping is so chaotic, when she wakes up, she is probably trying to gain some power and control. This is actually a good thing however, as a parent you obviously don’t want her watching TV or playing outside at night. Nor do you want to have to keep getting up to her.
As long as you are able to contact her at all during her screaming, she is awake. Some toddlers also have night terrors, and in such case, the children are not awake at all and there really is no point in trying to connect with them. With night terrors, prevention and keeping them safe (and the rest of the family and neighborhood asleep) during the terrors will be the focus.
Tips for handling the night screaming that is NOT night terror
If your toddler is not having night terrors, i.e. you can make contact with her while she is screaming, you can try to talk to your daughter during the day and get her agreement to learn a new way of sleeping. Including her in the process teaches her that she can learn self control. Have her choose a power toy that will help her sleep the whole night (it might be a doodlebop if they have toy versions!).
Together with her, come up with a little ritual she and the power toy can do in the night to put her back to sleep. You might be surprised what she comes up with. Giving her a torch can be a useful power tool!
Have a reward system so she gets a gold star, or doodlebug sticker on a chart for every night she puts herself back to sleep. After a week she can earn something bigger. Expect setbacks, she won’t master it all at once. When you do have to go in to her, use the power toy to ask “how would Deedee help you go back to sleep?”. If she screams, try to involve the power toy in calming her down. Distraction and a calm mom or dad will usually help an angry toddler settle a lot faster than an upset parent!
And how to handle night terror
If you do believe your daughter is having night terrors, then one thing to try is to register at what time of the night the screaming usually starts. Then you can try waking her up about 15 minutes before every night for a week to break the “habit”. This might make the terror go away.
There is evidence that children who are not getting enough sleep or if there has been a major event in the family (a death, a birth, divorce, moving house etc) are more prone to Night Terrors. So if you think your toddler might be getting a bit less sleep than she or he really needs, try to lengthen either night sleep or naps. You can find a sleep schedule from newborn to toddler here.
And check out for sleep apnea
Although uncommon, babies and toddlers can also suffer from sleep apnea, which is when they stop breathing all of a sudden at night. This can also trigger a very restless sleep and frequent night-wakings. If you listen carefully and your daughter stops breathing for a little while; take notes and schedule a doctor’s appointment to discuss the matter. Other symptoms of sleep appnea in toddlers are snoring, sweating at night and breathing mostly through the mouth both day and night. You don’t mention any of these symptoms, so this is probably not relevant for your daughter.
Despite the sleep deprivation and screaming, make sure you enjoy your time with your little toddler, she will grow out of the night time screaming and you will get a proper night’s sleep again!
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