My 3-year-old has started freaking out in her sleep and we can't calm her down. What's causing this?
Jodi Mindell, pediatric sleep expertChildren described as "freaking out" in their sleep may be having night terrors (also known as sleep terrors). Night terrors are scary, since your child appears terrified, incoherent, and frantic. But, developmentally speaking, they're normal — night terrors usually first appear during the toddler years and can continue up to the age of 7. Children usually have them one to two hours after falling asleep, when they are in the deepest stage of sleep. Eventually your child will return to a sound sleep, awakening the next morning with no memory of the past night's events.
When your child has night terrors you may think she's having a nightmare, but they aren't the same thing; in fact, night terrors don't even involve dreaming, though it seems as if your child is frightened or upset. Night terrors don't indicate that your child has a psychological problem, nor do they mean that she's upset about something. They happen because your child is caught somewhere between sleeping and waking. The easiest way to differentiate between a night terror and a nightmare is to ask yourself who is more upset the next morning. If your child is more agitated, she had a nightmare. If you're the one who's disturbed, she probably had a night terror.
Night terrors are closely related to sleepwalking, so you should take precautions (lock doors and windows) to ensure your child's safety. Don't attempt to wake your child. Doing so won't harm her, but can prolong the episode. Also, resist interfering; if you try to hold or soothe your child, you could make her more upset. It's best to cover her up and let her calm herself down.
When it comes to preventing night terrors, make sure your toddler gets plenty of sleep, as not getting enough is the number one reason for night terrors. Also, put her to bed at the same time each night, as episodes are more likely when your child has an erratic sleep schedule. You may also want to call your pediatrician for suggestions.