It’s common for new parents to wonder if their baby is having nightmares or bad dreams. Babies spend much of their early months sleeping, so it’s natural for parents to be curious about what’s going on in their little dreamers’ minds during all that shut-eye. Here’s what you need to know about whether infants have nightmares and what to do if your baby seems distressed during sleep.
Do babies have nightmares?
Experts say it’s unlikely that infants have nightmares in the way that adults do. That’s because babies’ brains are still rapidly developing, and their ability to experience complex thoughts, emotions, and fears is limited, especially in the first six months of life.
However, after about 6 months of age, babies do start to dream during some of their lighter sleep phases. While researchers can’t know for sure what babies dream about, dreams likely reflect their everyday experiences, such as feeding, cuddling, playtime, etc. There’s no evidence that babies’ dreams tend to be frightening or disturbing at this age.
It’s not until sometime in the second year of life that toddlers develop the cognitive capacity for bad dreams or nightmares. At this point, they have a better understanding of threats in the environment, a sense of danger, and an active imagination that allows them to experience frightening dream content.
What about night terrors?
Many parents wonder if their babies’ night wakings or outbursts during sleep are caused by nightmares. But there’s an important distinction between nightmares and other sleep disruptions like night terrors.
Nightmares occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when dreaming is most vivid. Nightmares usually cause waking and distress that can be soothed with comfort from a caregiver. The child can typically remember and describe the frightening dream content.
Night terrors, on the other hand, occur during deep non-REM sleep. The child may cry, scream, thrash around, or appear panicked, but they usually can’t be consoled or woken up. Afterward, they have no recollection of the event.
While the exact causes are unknown, night terrors are thought to be related to immature control of arousal and transitioning between sleep stages. They usually start between 4-12 months and affect up to 15% of infants. Night terrors tend to resolve on their own by toddlerhood.
Signs of nightmares in babies
Though nightmares are unlikely in infants, here are some signs that could indicate your baby is having bad dreams after 6 months of age:
- Whimpering, moaning, or crying out during REM sleep
- Moving restlessly, twitching, or jerking arms/legs during sleep
- Waking up upset, seeking comfort and able to be soothed
- Responding to your voice and touch when awakened at night
If your baby shows these behaviors, try gently intervening by rubbing their back, singing/shushing, or whispering soothing words to let them know you’re there. This may help settle them and interrupt any disturbing dreams.
Tips for minimizing nightmares
While you can’t prevent bad dreams altogether, the following tips can help lower the chances your baby will have nightmares once they reach toddlerhood:
- Maintain a soothing bedtime routine with a book, song, etc. to relax your child before sleep.
- Make the sleep environment calm, comfortable and free of disruptions.
- Ensure your child gets adequate daytime nap(s) so they don’t become overtired.
- Set appropriate limits on scary or violent TV shows, movies, video games and stories.
- Talk through any stressful events that occurred during the day to resolve anxious feelings.
- Let your child sleep in your room with a night light if they’re afraid of the dark.
- Comfort your child and remind them they’re safe if they have a scary dream.
When to call the doctor
In rare cases, nightmares may become excessive in toddlers or older children, significantly disrupting sleep. Consult your pediatrician if:
- Your child has nightmares almost every night for weeks/months
- Nightmares cause severe distress, intense fear, screaming/crying
- Your child is fearful about going to sleep because of nightmares
- You notice other daytime symptoms like anxiety, fatigue, or mood changes
The doctor can help determine if there’s an underlying cause like stress, trauma, medication side effects, or sleep apnea contributing to the nightmares. Professional counseling or sleep medicine referral may help in some cases.
When do babies start dreaming?
Research indicates that babies spend about 50% of their sleep time in the REM stage after 6 months of age. During REM sleep, their eyes move rapidly behind closed lids as their brains activate in patterns similar to adults, which is why this is considered the primary dream stage.
However, babies don’t develop adult-like REM sleep cycles with vivid dream imagery right away. The cycles start off very short at birth and become longer and more defined over the first 6 months of life as neurological development allows for more complex brain activity.
So when does dreaming actually begin? There’s no consensus among scientists, but here’s what we know:
- 0-8 weeks: no distinct REM/non-REM cycles. Dreaming unlikely.
- 2-4 months: REM cycles begin emerging but are very short.
- 6 months: distinct REM/non-REM cycles with REM comprising about 50% of sleep.
- 9-12 months: better organization of sleep cycles with longer REM periods.
Based on these changes, some researchers believe simple dream imagery may begin by 6 months. But there’s little evidence that babies can experience complex, vivid, story-like dreams or nightmares until closer to age 2.
What do babies dream about?
Since babies can’t describe their dreams, scientists can only theorize about what may go through babies’ minds during REM sleep.
Dreams likely reflect the daily experiences babies are exposed to, such as:
- Faces of parents and caregivers
- Breast or bottle feeding
- Rocking, touching, sounds of caregivers’ voices
- Toys, mobiles, or other familiar objects
- Stroller rides or car trips
Research tracking babies’ eye movements during REM sleep found they “scan” their dream environment as if looking around their waking world. This suggests they may visually explore their surroundings in dreams.
As babies get older, their dreams probably start to incorporate more complex concepts and scenarios drawn from books, play time with siblings/friends, and television. But their limited life experience likely makes most dream content quite simple and benign.
Do babies know they are dreaming?
Adults have a level of self-awareness during dreams that allows them to experience dream plots while knowing they’re in a dream state. The ability to reflect on dreams is part of meta-cognition or “thinking about thinking” that develops gradually throughout childhood.
Infants and very young toddlers do not have this same capacity. So when babies enter REM sleep and simple dream imagery starts to occur around 6 months, they likely do not yet realize they are dreaming. Their sense of self, consciousness, and ability for introspection is still emerging.
It’s not until around 2-3 years old that children develop clearer self-awareness and comprehension of mental processes like thoughts, memories, and imagining. This allows them to understand that dreams represent separate mental experiences from real waking life.
Why do babies twitch while dreaming?
Many parents notice their sleeping babies make subtle muscle motions like facial twitches, smiles, arm jerks, or leg kicks during REM sleep. This phenomenon, known as myoclonic twitches, is common and normal in infants.
These involuntary muscle contractions are caused by immature connections between the brainstem and motor pathways that control movement. The twitches are more noticeable in babies but happen in people of all ages during sleep.
Researchers believe the twitching may be related to processing sensory information in the developing brain during REM sleep. The movements seem to coincide with bursts of eye motion and increased neural activity. So while your baby likely isn’t physically acting out their dreams, the twitches reflect inner brain activity during dreaming.
Can babies have sleep disorders?
Yes, babies can experience certain sleep disorders, although they are less common than in older children and adults. Some examples include:
|Sleep apnea||Pauses in breathing, snoring, restless sleep||Surgery to remove airway obstructions|
|Periodic limb movement disorder||Jerking arm/leg movements disrupting sleep||Iron supplements|
|Restless leg syndrome||Unpleasant sensations and urge to move legs||Relaxation, massage, warm baths|
|Circadian rhythm disorders||Trouble falling asleep/staying asleep||Regulate daily sleep/wake times|
Sleep problems are most often behavioral or developmental in nature in infants, such as difficulty falling asleep alone or frequent night wakings. But persistent, severe, or worsening sleep disturbances may warrant medical evaluation.
How can I help my baby sleep better?
Here are some tips to help babies establish healthy sleep habits and address common sleep challenges:
- Maintain a calming bedtime routine like a bath, massage, feeding, rocking.
- Put baby to bed drowsy but awake to self-soothe at bedtime.
- Keep the sleep environment comfortable – not too hot/cold, minimal noise.
- Consider a white noise machine or swing to pacify baby.
- Ensure daytime feedings/naps are sufficient to prevent overtiredness.
- Use a sleep training method like graduated extinction or fading for difficulties.
- Discuss options like dream feed or weaning swaddle with pediatrician if needed.
- Rule out underlying medical issues if sleep problems persist.
Healthy sleep in infancy sets the stage for better sleep as your baby grows. See your pediatrician if you have ongoing concerns about your baby’s sleep quality or patterns.
While researchers can’t know for certain what babies dream about, sleep studies show they begin spending more time in REM sleep around 6 months as their sleep cycles mature. Simple dream imagery likely reflects babies’ everyday experiences but their brains are not developed enough for complex nightmares. Distressing sleep disruptions in infants are usually due to issues like night terrors or sleep associations, not bad dreams. Establishing healthy sleep habits early on can help prevent problems as your baby grows. If sleep issues arise, your pediatrician can suggest strategies to help your little one (and you!) get more peaceful rest.