Can babies have nightmares? What you need to know.

For parents who have experienced a situation when their child suddenly wakes up, the question of “can babies have nightmares” remains a mystery. This curiosity stems from a baby waking up crying for no apparent reason. You’ve gone down the mental checklist of feeding, changing, or checking for fever, and nothing seems out of the ordinary. So, you might wonder if your baby simply had a bad dream?

Often when we think of nightmares, we imagine the subconscious part of our brain and how it’s unlocked during sleep. This might include what we encounter, think, and watch during the day, and even our fears. However, if babies are exposed to primarily positive and comforting stimuli, then how would they have nightmares? Also, if bad dreams cause your baby to wake up screaming, then how can you soothe him or her back to sleep? Read on to find out the answer to this dilemma.

newborn yawning or crying

Can babies have nightmares, or what causes them to wake up?

The age that children start having nightmares is rather unclear. Although instances are rare, babies can start having night terrors as early as 18 months. However, actual nightmares might start between the ages of 2 to 4 years. Unfortunately, you won’t know which one your child is experiencing until they get old enough to verbally communicate the details. Nevertheless, for the sake of differentiating between the two, night terrors mostly take place during deep sleep, and children won’t remember them the next morning; whereas they’ll be able to give you the details of a nightmare right away when they wake up.

On the other hand, you might encounter a situation where your baby still has his or her eyes closed but cries out loudly. Moreover, he or she doesn’t respond to any form of arousal—at least not right away. This scenario happens quite often and is normal. It’s called confusional arousal, which bears a similarity to sleepwalking or talking. Your child is doing something that gives you the impression of being awake, but he or she is still asleep.

What contributes to this sleep interruption?

Aside from the usual late-night feedings and diaper changes, the most common sleep interruption is confusional arousal, which will occur less often as your baby starts to develop normal sleep patterns at night.

In addition to getting the days and nights reversed, the most common thing that can cause a baby to wake up suddenly is stimulation, particularly sounds. At first, your baby might still take a while to process different stimuli because of their developing central nervous system. However, as sounds, sights, and smells become more familiar, he or she will be able to tune them out and sleep through the night.

Dad holding baby in early morning

What do when your baby wakes up screaming

All in all, you can expect your baby’s sleep patterns to be sporadic until they develop the skill of self-comfort and a consistent sleep/wake pattern. In the meantime, here are a few tips for soothing your baby back to sleep.

Create a quiet and dark environment

Creating a peaceful environment enables your baby to fall asleep without distractions. Darkness also helps the brain to produce more melatonin, the hormone that induces the feeling of sleepiness.

Feed your baby until he or she becomes sleepy

At times, feeding your baby right before bedtime helps him or her to wind down for the night. However, the whole idea is to feed your baby until drowsiness kicks in.

Try a massage

Place your baby in a comfortable position (back or tummy) and give a light massage. Quite often, this helps your baby to become relaxed and eventually drift off to sleep.

Avoid getting your baby overly tired

Ensuring that your child doesn’t become overly stressed or tired right before bed helps to build consistent sleep patterns and assures a peaceful night’s rest. So, playtime shouldn’t go into the late hours even if your baby doesn’t show signs of being tired. They could just be “fighting off” the urge to sleep. Likewise, helping your baby to unwind in the evening decreases cortisol levels, which is the hormone that helps a person to stay alert.

As mentioned, the age that children start having nightmares may not be so clear, but as you can see, sleep disruptions are common during the first six months if not the first year. Therefore, you now have some ideas of what to do when your baby wakes up screaming. Soon enough, you—and your little one—will be enjoying a good night’s rest.

Editors' Recommendations