This post started with the question from a mom about why her toddler wakes 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 toddler will be 3 years old in March and right now he wakes up every night between midnight and 4 am screaming as loud as he can.
A few nights when I go get him, he screams that he wants to watch the Doodlebops. Other nights she screams he wants to go outside and play. He screams non-stop for a good hour and NOTHING will calm him down.
What can I do?
He has been on a strict routine since he came home from the hospital, so nothing has changed about his daily lifestyle. He goes to bed every night between 8 and 9 pm and he still takes a 2-3hr nap every afternoon.
He also talks/walks in his sleep if that makes any difference.
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 son 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 his brain not quite having the boundaries in place that we normally do when going to sleep. So it is giving his body messages to partly act out what is happening in his dreams, ie talking, walking somewhere.
Regarding sleep walking, apart from keeping him safe – barriers over stairs and locks on the doors for example – it is not something to be unduly worried about. He may grow out of it, although some adults still sleepwalk!
Let’s take a look at the possible reasons that your toddler wakes up screaming, and how to act depending on the situation.
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.
Another possibility is night terrors, which are quite common in 2 to 6-year-olds. Children usually grow out of them by age 8.
Night terrors are different from nightmares, in that the child may appear awake, but is not rational, may scream or be frightened but not be consolable. Children don’t usually have much recollection of the event the next day except for your disapproval at being woken!
Children with night terrors, often don’t recognize their parents or demand unreasonable or unusual things – like needing to go outside.
I’ll go into some tips on how to handle night terrors below.
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 by 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 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 terrors
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.
There is also some research that suggests that co-sleeping can mitigate terrors, so that can also be worth trying for a while.
Other than that, just be with your toddler and wait them out. Make sure they don’t hurt themselves. There is no point in trying to wake them or discipline during night terrors, just be patient and try to reassure the child until it is over.
Aand of course, if you can, make sure they don’t wake up siblings. If possible, keep your toddler’s sleeping place as far as possible from siblings if they are disturbed by the screaming.
This can be a very exausting situation. Take turns at night if you are two adults in the household and remember that it will pass!
And check 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 apnea 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!
PS. This online course on positive parenting has great tools for toddler sleep issues, as well as tantrums and lots of other behaviors. It is a great course! They also offer completely free webinars, so be sure to check it out!
Book tips for Toddler Sleep
- The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep: Simple Solutions for Kids from Birth to 5 Years
- Toddler Sleep Solutions: Train Your Toddler To Go To Bed Happily and Sleep All Night
More Toddlers Waking Up At Night
- Why isn’t my 18 months old sleeping through the night?
- 11 month old wakes up screaming – night terrors, nightmares or reflux?
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