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Tackling Toddler Sleep Problems

Troubleshoot your tot’s nighttime woes so you can all get the rest you need in your own beds.

Night Terror

"Night or sleep terrors are not nightmares," Pelayo says. These two toddler sleep disorders differ in certain important ways. "Sleep terrors occur in the first third of the sleep and nightmares tend to occur in the last third of the sleep," he says. Sleep terrors or night terrors are characterized by a bloodcurdling scream, crying, a racing heart, and no memory the next day, he says. By contrast, a nightmare is a dream, and your child is reassured that it was only a dream when he wakes.

"The first thing to do for night terrors is to rule out snoring, because snoring destabilizes sleep, and this can make night terrors, or even sleepwalking, more likely. Destabilized sleep is not deep sleep," Pelayo says. These toddler sleep disorders tend to occur in light sleeps. Once snoring has been ruled out, try waking your child 15 minutes after he or she falls asleep. "They will respond to this scheduled awakening by going to sleep more deeply," Pelayo says. Abide by the 15-minute rule, though, because waking a child much after that may actually cause night terrors.

Toddler Snoring

This toddler sleep problem could be associated with sleep apnea, a potentially dangerous condition in which your child stops breathing repeatedly while asleep. Take your child to a pediatrician, who may recommend your child be evaluated by an ear-nose-and-throat (ENT) specialist.

Thrashing and banging with outbursts of sudden crying

"Safety is the first thing to look out for in situations like these," Zafarlotfi says. "Make sure the crib or bed is as safe as it can be so children can't hurt themselves. If this continues to the point that the child is disturbed, see a sleep specialist for a sleep study," she says. There are many potential causes of this toddler sleep disorder. "It may be a psychological issue, it may be something that they will outgrow, or maybe they are having seizures while they sleep." Depending on the cause and the severity, medication may be in order.

Trying to climb out of the crib

"It may be time for a toddler bed," says Zafarlotfi. "If your child is really trying to climb out, they can end up hurting themselves so you have no choice." This switch can be done in several ways. "Some parents make a big fuss and buy a huge bed, but some parents just buy the bed, place it in the child's room and ask the child whether they want to sleep in the bed or crib."

If your toddler won't stay in his or her bed, "get a safety gate by the door that is too high to climb over and one that they can't crawl under and catch their neck," Zafarlotfi says. On average, children are transitioned to a toddler bed around age 2 or when they are 35 inches tall.

Reviewed on September 17, 2015
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