Are potty-training and night terrors related? Yes. Are night terrors different from nightmares? Yes. Is there anything you can do? Read on and find out. 

Have you ever been awakened by a screaming child who looks awake but doesn’t notice you? And when you try to comfort him, he pushes you away?

That’s called a night terror. 

Night terrors happen in 2% of children between the ages of 2 and 8, affecting boys and girls equally.

The good thing is those night terrors are scarier to witness than to experience. Meaning, you, as the parent, will have a more traumatic experience than your child. 

What are night terrors?

Although many people confuse night terrors with nightmares, the two are entirely different.

Night terrors happen when your child transitions between light stages of sleep to a deeper stage of sleep. During the transition, some parts of the child’s brain are asleep, while other parts that control his voice and movement are still somewhat alert. 

Night terrors usually happen a few hours after your toddler falls asleep, and may last up to 45 minutes. After the episode is done, your child will quickly go back to sleep.

He may look awake and aware of his surroundings, but in reality, he can’t sense your presence or be comforted by you. 

A child that is having night terrors will show the following symptoms: 

  • Kicking
  • Sweating
  • Sleepwalking
  • Screaming
  • Inconsolable crying

On the other hand, nightmares are more common and happen to around 25% of children aged 5 to 12. 

They can happen at any point during the night, although they tend to occur during the lighter REM sleep in the early morning hours. 

Your child may have a hard time going back to sleep, and when he wakes up, he’s likely to remember his dream.


Why do children have night terrors?

The causes of night terrors are not precisely known. However, many sleep experts believe that the following causes may contribute to a child experiencing night terrors:

  • Stressful life events: events such as a new sibling, transitioning to a toddler bed, or moving to a new home can all be stressful moments for a child.
  • Sleep deprivation: in some cases, a sleep-deprived child can experience night terrors. If you have a child that’s prone to night terrors, try introducing a regular bedtime and nap schedule.
  • Sleeping in unknown surroundings: sleeping in an unfamiliar place can overstimulate your child’s little brain. 
  • A full bladder: the sensation of a full bladder can cause confusing arousal of your child’s developing nervous system.
  • Fever: when a child is sick, he’s more susceptible to tension and agitation. This can lead to night terrors. 
  • Medications: as medications affect the central nervous system, it may cause night terrors in children. 

Can potty-training cause night terrors?

By now, you probably know that many things can negatively affect your child’s sleep, including teething, learning to walk, and transitioning to a new bed. 

Well, potty-training is another thing you can add on the list. 

During potty-training, you’re teaching your child to be aware of his body. He’s slowly learning to be aware of his body’s sensations when he has to pee or poop. Those sensations may start waking him up at night.

At the same time, your toddler is becoming more aware of how wet or dirty his diaper feels. If he doesn’t wake up from the sensations of having to pee, he might wake up because a wet or dirty diaper is making him uncomfortable.

Also, when a child is potty-training, he may feel torn between pleasing his parents and being unable to resist soiling. He wants to assert his independence, but he also has a fear of a lack of control.

This anxiety and stress can contribute to a child experiencing night terrors. 

After all, potty-training is a new skill, and just like with learning any other skill, it can disturb your child’s nighttime sleep. 

What should I do if my child has a night terror? 

Don’t try to wake him up

Trying to wake up your child may make him more agitated and disoriented. The best thing you can do is try to wait until the episode passes. There won’t be much you can do as your child will probably go back to sleep easily. 

Soothe him back to sleep

If your child doesn’t go back to sleep after the night terror episode is done, you can try soothing him back to sleep.

You probably won’t be able to wake him up, but you can try talking to him in a calming voice. Comfort him by saying, “it’s okay; everything will be fine,” or, “it’s safe to go back to sleep.” You can try holding his hand, although he may push you away.

Another tip is to turn on the light so that he feels less confused by shadows. 

Protect him from any injury. 

The best thing, and sometimes the only thing you can do is to protect your child from getting injured. 

When a child experiences a night terror, he may sleepwalk and fall down a stairway, run into a wall, or break a window. Stand by him and gently direct him back to his room.


Can you prevent night terrors?

Have a calming bedtime routine

As a lack of sleep can lead to more night terrors, get your toddler’s sleep schedule back on track. Establish a calming bedtime routine filled with warm baths, relaxing massages, and plenty of cuddles.  

Limit food and drinks before bed

Another thing you can do is ensure your toddler goes to bed with an empty bladder. Encourage him to visit the potty before bed so that he can empty his bladder completely. Give him his last drink 1.5 to 2 hours before bedtime. 

Consider waking your child before you go to bed

This trick works well for many parents. If your toddler goes to bed at around 8 p.m. and you go at 11 p.m., try waking him up before you call it a night. However, keep in mind that if your child is a deep sleeper, you’ll have a hard time waking him up. 

Wake him 15 minutes before the episode happens

If the night terror episodes happen more than two times per week, many pediatricians recommend waking up your child 15 minutes before the episode happens. For example, if the episode usually occurs at 11 p.m., try waking him up at 10:45 p.m to prevent the night terror episode from happening. 

Final word

Yes, potty-training and night terrors are related, and your toddler may be one of 2% of children who get it. 

But take heart: night terrors are a very common way to process emotions and information, and they will eventually pass.

While there’s not much you can do to prevent them from happening, you can always try to establish a calming bedtime routine or limit drinks a few hours before bed.

And if a night terror episode happens, try offering quiet reassurance and making sure your child doesn’t injure himself while sleepwalking. 

In case your child’s night terrors continue despite your best efforts, talk to your pediatrician.