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"Is my infant scared of the dark?" Is a question we often hear during our sleep training programs. The answer to this common question, is no! If your little one is under the age of two years old - they are not developmentally capable to have a sense of imagination just yet. It is however, common to assume this is why your infant is crying when you leave them in their room - but instead they are going through a sense of realization that you are no longer where they can see you - causing them to react. This behaviour usually begins around six months of age. Giving your infant time to settle and realize that it is ok when mom or dad leaves the room, playing peek a boo during awake times, and consistency will help them manage this new developmental behaviour. Once your little one has reached the age of two-three years old - their imagination will begin to flourish, making it difficult for them to distinguish between fantasy and reality. This is also the age where Nightmares or Night Terrors may begin.

It can be really frightening and worrisome when your little one wakes in the night full of fear. Often, parents try to wake their child in order to get them to calm down. Though this may seem like a no brainer, but it isn’t always the most appropriate response. Before we can really help our toddlers through this intense fear, it is important to identify the root cause. When toddlers are waking in intense panic during the night, they can be experiencing one of two things; a nightmare or a night terror.

Night Terrors

Night terrors often occur during the first half of the night and take place when your child is in between stages of sleep. They are most often seen between the ages of 3-7 and most children grow out of them by the age of 10.

Night terrors are typically characterized by the sudden awakening in intense panic or fear. Your toddler may scream and physically appear scared. They may be thrashing and can often seem disoriented or incoherent. If your child is experiencing night terrors, you may notice that they don’t seem to be comforted by your presence. In fact, your attempt to console them may actually seem to make it worse. Often when asked about their night time fears the next day, they don’t have any recollection of what happened.


Unlike night terrors, nightmares often happen in the later part of the night and early morning. They can also be characterized by waking suddenly in intense fear and panic, but the child is typically easily comforted when a parent consoles them. If your child is experiencing nightmares, they are more likely to recall details in the morning.

How Should I Handle Nightmares & Night Terrors?

First, it is important to determine what it is that your child is experiencing, a nightmare or night terror. If your little one is having a nightmare, it is important to provide comfort and reassurance. Remind them that their dream is not real and encourage them to go back to sleep. It may be helpful to talk about their nightmare in the morning and help them explore the differences between make-believe and reality. Depending on what your child is fearful of, they may feel comforted by having a flashlight and/or a stuffy in bed with them. If your little one is scared of the dark or shadows, it can be helpful to expose them to positive experiences in the dark, such as a bonfire or night time walk.

If your child is experiencing night terrors, it is important to stay calm and gently comfort them. If they are quite active during their night terror, it’s important to protect them from hurting themselves, but try not to wake them.

Most toddlers grow out of these night time fears, whether they are experiencing nightmares or night terrors. Having said that, there are some things we can do to prevent these night time disturbances. It can be helpful to limit stimulation before bed by lowering the lights and eliminating screen time in the couple hours leading up to bedtime.

Nightmares and night terrors are more common in children who are overtired. For this reason, it is important to ensure that your little one is getting an adequate amount of sleep for their age – this could mean reassessing their bed time or reintroducing their nap if it was recently removed. Creating a calming and age appropriate bedtime routine and ensuring your child has the perfect sleep environment could be beneficial to promote sleep.

If you are worried about your child’s nightmares or night terrors, we urge you to discuss it with your child’s paediatrician to rule out any underlying issues. Sleep disruptions can affect your entire family. You may feel exhausted from fragmented sleep and your little one may be in an overtired cycle due to their sleep disturbances. If you’re having trouble figuring out an appropriate sleep schedule or bedtime routine for your child, we would be more than happy to help you with a personalized sleep plan and 1:1 support to get your family back on track!

- Paediatric Sleep Consultant

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