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Child Crying Suddenly in Sleep: What’s Going On?

We generally don’t worry too much about babies under one year old who wake up and cry at night, except that they are tiring. Because children of this age cry at night because they are hungry, their diapers are dirty, they are cold, they are hot, they are unable to sleep, etc.

But what if a child over 1 year old, 2-3 years old, or 3 years old or later suddenly cries wildly at night while sleeping, sits up, opens his eyes wide, and looks scared or even horrified? Should you worry? what to do? Under what circumstances should you go to the hospital? Let’s talk today.

01 What happened to crying suddenly?

A variety of reasons can cause children to wake up at night, including excessive fatigue, psychological stress, etc. Children after one year old suddenly wake up at night, cry and become emotional, usually because of nightmares and night terrors. Nightmares and night terrors may first appear around the age of 2, peak around the age of 3-6, and gradually decrease after the age of 10.

Although nightmares and night terrors can both cause children to cry suddenly at night, the two situations are actually different and require different responses. Nightmares may be more common than night terrors.

02 nightmare

  1. What is a nightmare?

As the name suggests, nightmares refer to scary dreams. Nightmares generally occur in the last third of the night, when the body is in the rapid eye movement sleep (REM) stage, such as 4 a.m. to 6 a.m. After a child has a nightmare, he may cry loudly and be difficult to comfort. During this period, the child’s feelings are also very diverse and complex, including fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, embarrassment, disgust, etc.
As for why children have nightmares, there is currently no definite conclusion. However, factors such as excessive fatigue, increased stress factors, fever, and an active imagination may lead to nightmares.

Children at different stages of development will have different nightmares. For example, for younger children, nightmares may be about being separated from their mother, seeing monsters, etc.; while for older children, nightmares may be about scary movie and TV scenes, or about the things they are about to face. Stressful events (such as going to a new school), scary people or animals, etc.

The frequency of nightmares varies from child to child, with approximately 25% of children experiencing nightmares at least once a week. And if a child experiences a traumatic event, nightmares may occur more frequently in the next 6 months or so.

  1. What to do?
    1) Be at the child’s side and comfort the child as soon as possible.

2) Hug the child and talk to the child in a calm and gentle way, such as telling the child that mom and dad are around and nothing will hurt you.

3) Tell your children that you can relate to their feelings and know that their fearful feelings are real.

4) Stay with the child until the child calms down completely. If your child is particularly scared, you can also consider some light-hearted interactions, such as reading a favorite picture book together.

5) Encourage children to describe their nightmares and talk about what happened in their dreams. During the process, you can tell your children that none of this is true, and then you can encourage your children to change the ending of the nightmare and make up a happy and interesting ending.

6) If your child feels more comfortable with a night light on, leave a light on.

7) If the child is afraid of an object, shadow, etc. in the room, make sure that these things that frighten the child have been removed before putting the child to sleep.

8) Once the child is completely calm, try to encourage the child to continue sleeping.

  1. What not to do?

If a child has nightmares, inappropriate behavior by parents may aggravate the problem. Do not do the following:

1) Ignoring the child: If the child has nightmares, cries and is frightened at night, if the parent ignores and does not provide any companionship or comfort, the child may become more agitated and frightened.

2) Being angry at your child: Don’t think that your child is crying to attract attention, and try to control your emotions. Don’t get angry at your child because you were woken up by him in the middle of the night.

3) Let the child change the bed to sleep with an adult because of nightmares: Sometimes when the child is too tired at night and does not have the energy to comfort the child, parents may choose to let the child sleep directly with them. They feel that this method is simple, fast and trouble-free. However, this “good” method may make the child mistakenly think that the nightmare is because there is something wrong with the bed he sleeps on, and he may eventually ask to sleep with his parents all the time.
Of course, if the child sleeps with his parents when he has a nightmare, or the child does not sleep in a separate bed with his parents, then there is no need to worry about this.

  1. How to make nightmares less severe?

It may not be realistic to ensure that children never have nightmares; but we can reduce the number of nightmares as much as possible through some parenting details. For example, the following practices may help reduce the number of nightmares:

1) Do not let your children watch scary, thrilling, or frightening movies, TV shows, short videos, or books.

2) Pay attention to the details of life and discover in time whether something is causing stress to the child. For example, observe whether the child is stressed due to a certain life event. If so, you can try to respond in a targeted manner.

3) Discuss dreams with your children and let them know that everyone dreams. Sometimes they are happy dreams, but occasionally they may be nightmares.

4) If a child has the same nightmare repeatedly, you can try to let the child understand the dream through drawing, writing, acting, etc. In this process, children are allowed to use their imagination to change the ending of the nightmare for the better, become friends with the characters in the nightmare, etc., and ultimately make the child no longer so afraid of the dream.

03 Night Terrors

  1. What are night terrors?

Night terrors are different from nightmares. For example, nightmares occur in the last third of a night’s sleep, while night terrors often occur in the first third of a night’s sleep, when the child is in deep sleep.

During night terrors, in addition to crying violently, children may also sweat, tremble, breathe rapidly, yell, scream, kick, push, suddenly sit up and look frightened, do not recognize family members, or become unconscious. Someone is waiting nearby.

The process of a child’s night terrors may make parents very worried, but because the child is still asleep, they will not know or remember everything that happened the night before.

Night terrors usually last 5-10 minutes, but can last up to 45 minutes. Most children go back to sleep immediately after having night terrors. In fact, they usually don’t wake up at all.

After reading this, everyone can actually feel the difference between night terrors and nightmares more clearly. Of course, some children who have nightmares may also have night terrors.

  1. How to deal with it?

When a child has night terrors, the child himself does not know what is happening, but it is very scary for parents to come home. Therefore, first of all, you must try to stay calm and not panic.

When having a night terror, do not try to wake, soothe, or stop your child, as doing so may increase the risk of another night terror later in the night. When children have night terrors, parents should accompany them, monitor them, and wait patiently, such as ensuring that the environment is safe and that the children will not do anything harmful to themselves. They should wait for the children to slowly calm down and then go to sleep.

After getting up the next day, do not talk to your child about night terrors, as doing so may make your child more nervous and feel that something scary will happen during the night that they don’t know about.

04 Nightmares or night terrors? When should you go to the hospital?

Regardless of nightmares, night terrors, or other sleep disturbances, if they occur only occasionally, you generally don’t need to worry too much. However, if your child appears in the following similar situations, it is best to seek help from a professional for further evaluation and intervention:

1) Even if parents actively respond, the situation is still very serious and reoccurs, and even affects the child’s daytime life.

2) There are psychological factors that cause nightmares or seriously affect the child’s sleep.

3) The child began to have nightmares after a known traumatic event, but the nightmares did not resolve for a long time.

4) Parents who feel very worried or even anxious about their children’s sleep can seek professional help in time.

To sum up, it is not uncommon for older children after one year old to cry suddenly while sleeping, so there is usually no need to be too nervous. Nightmares and night terrors are different situations with different responses. Read more and stock up on knowledge so that you can better deal with it if you encounter it.