Twitching, jerking, and restlessness
Some children experience twitching and jerking movements during sleep or when falling asleep. These movements usually last a few seconds and happen a couple of times a minute. They can go on for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.
Your child’s legs may twitch or jerk, or she may flex her ankles. The movements aren’t painful, but they can keep your child from getting a restful night’s sleep. Sometimes inadequate levels of iron or folic acid can be the cause, so mention it to your child’s doctor.
Some kids also experience a related condition called restless legs syndrome, in which their legs feel tingly or uncomfortable, or they feel an overwhelming urge to move about. You want your child to get a good night’s rest, so if you suspect twitching, jerking, or restless legs syndrome is causing her problems, give her doctor a call.
Unusual sleeping positions
Many toddlers are restless sleepers, changing position numerous times during the night. Some have a favorite sleeping position that they settle into for long periods, but others are all over the place.
One toddler may prefer sleeping on his side or splayed out on his back like a starfish, while another likes to curl up into a ball. Toddlers sometimes sleep folded up on their hands and knees with their bottom in the air.
There are a couple of positions that might signal a problem, though. If your toddler sleeps with his head hanging over the side of the bed or raised on top of a stuffed animal, it could be a sign of sleep apnea, according to sleep expert Jodi Mindell. (Children with sleep apnea do this to keep the airway open while sleeping, since tipping their head back or sleeping in a more upright position helps keep the airway from closing.)
Since most sleeping positions are harmless, just let your toddler be – even if he looks uncomfortable to you. But if you suspect he may have sleep apnea, start by telling his doctor about it. She can help you determine whether your child needs to be evaluated and treated.
There are lots of reasons that your toddler might grind his teeth — including tension, anxiety, the teeth not being aligned properly, or pain (from an earache or teething, for example). Allergies may also be to blame.
In most cases, teeth grinding isn’t harmful, and it’s likely your child will outgrow the habit without your doing anything about it. Mention it to her dentist, though, so he can check for problems. You might also try soothing your toddler at bedtime with a soak in the tub, a little backrub, and extra cuddling in the rocking chair.
If your child walks in his sleep, he may appear to be awake, but he’s not. His eyes will be open, but he’ll have a blank look on his face.
He may get up and walk around or even engage in activities like getting dressed or playing. If he talks, he won’t make much sense. He may sleepwalk for just a few minutes or much longer – even half an hour or more.
Sleepwalking is most common in children between the ages of 3 and 7, but it can happen at any age. Often a child will sleepwalk if he’s anxious or overly tired. Kids who have sleep apnea are also more likely to sleepwalk.
It’s not dangerous to wake up a sleepwalking child, but if you do, he may be frightened – so it’s best just to gently guide him back to bed.
You’ll want to take extra precautions to keep your night rambler safe, because he can easily get hurt while walking around in the dark. Make sure he won’t be able to open any doors or windows while sleepwalking, and block off stairways. Also try to keep things he might trip over off the floor, and scan the house for hazards after tucking him in at night.
Sleepwalking usually isn’t cause for concern, but if your child does it often, mention it to his doctor at the next visit. Make sure he’s getting enough rest, preferably with a dependable sleeping schedule and an early bedtime.
Nightmares can be caused by anxiety and stress. They often happen in the later part of the night, during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. And they happen more often to children than to adults. A fever, medication, or difficulty sleeping – because of a breathing problem, for example – may also bring about nightmares.
Nightmares are especially common in older toddlers and preschoolers. Children this age have a growing imagination and an increasing understanding that things can cause them harm.
The nightmare will probably wake your child up, and she’ll be frightened or anxious. She’ll probably remember the dream. All you need to do when your child has a nightmare is comfort her as best you can and try to soothe her back to sleep.
If she’s having nightmares repeatedly, think about what kind of stress she’s experiencing in her waking hours and do what you can to reduce it. If you’re concerned about your toddler’s nightmares, talk with her doctor.
If your toddler sits up in bed and seems terrified, he may be having a night terror, also known as a sleep terror. He may be screaming and sweating. He probably won’t remember what happened, and he’ll be difficult to wake up or console.
Like nightmares, night terrors can be triggered by fever, overtiredness, and stress. Unlike nightmares, they often occur in the first third of the night during deep sleep.
Night terrors are most common in children who are 4 to 12 years old, but they can happen at any age. And most kids outgrow them as their nervous system matures.
It can be very upsetting to watch your child experience a night terror. As with sleepwalking, it’s best not to wake or comfort your child. Just let the night terror run its course, says sleep expert Mindell. If you try to console your child, he’s likely to become more agitated and the episode will last longer.
Not getting enough sleep is often a major contributor to night terrors, so make sure your child heads off to bed early and gets plenty of shut-eye. If your child has frequent night terrors, talk with his doctor, who may suggest stress-reduction techniques. In rare instances, medication may be necessary.
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