Ask An Expert / Sleep

Could my 2-year-old be having sleep terrors?

They are rare but possible in very young children

Jamie M. Howard, PhD
Jamie Howard, PhD

Clinical Psychologist, Anxiety Disorders Center, Director, Trauma and Resilience Service

Child Mind Institute

My son, who will be 2 in September, has never slept through the night, and to this day it is still very rare that he does. I put him to bed between 8-9 and he wakes up 2 hours later, not returning back to sleep sometimes till 2 in the morning. Some nights he even has night terrors. I stumbled over an article about night terrors in children. Fit him to a T. However when I talked to his pediatricians about it, they looked at me like I was nuts and said he was too young. I mean if anyone knows my son it would be me. Being that his doctors haven't provided me with much information about the topic, I was wondering if there was more information that you may have.

Your son could be having sleep terrors, also referred to as night terrors. During a sleep terror kids will appear fearful and may have difficulty breathing and a rapid heartbeat. They may sit up in bed, thrash around, and scream. Sleep terrors might remind us of nightmares, but they’re actually very different. They are neurological in nature, and, unlike nightmares, kids generally don’t remember the sleep terror after they wake up. Nightmares happen during the REM cycle of sleep, whereas night terrors occur during a phase of sleep when dreaming does not occur. They tend to happen during the first third of the night, after a child has been asleep for two or three hours.

While it’s true that sleep terrors are more common among kids ages 3-7, we have seen them in kids as young as 18 months. Boys seem to have them more, and there are some risk factors that predict sleep terrors, like a fever, taking a new medication, anxiety, being in an unfamiliar place, and being overtired.

Sleep terrors can be scary for parents to witness, but it’s important to keep in mind that your child is actually not feeling afraid when this happens. Do not wake up your son if he is having one; instead, wait it out and make sure that he doesn’t hurt himself. It should only last a few minutes and he will stay asleep on his own.

You can also try to lower your son’s risk by making sure he gets enough rest and doesn’t stay up too late. If you are still concerned, you could learn more about your son’s sleep habits by doing a sleep study.

If, on the other hand, you think your son is having nightmares, you can consult a psychologist who specializes in infant mental health. A professional could work with you to develop a healthy sleep routine and address any anxiety that your son might be interfering with sleep.