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Can babies have nightmares? What you need to know

Can babies have nightmares? This question often stems from a baby waking up crying for no apparent reason. You’ve literally and mentally gone down the 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 might relate that occurrence to the brain and how it’s affected by what happens to us during the day and even our fears. However, if babies are exposed to mostly positive and comforting stimuli, then how could 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 answers to this dilemma.

newborn yawning or crying

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

There is no specific age when children start having nightmares. However, actual nightmares might start between the ages of 2 to 4 years. This occurrence deals with the how toddlers perceive their surroundings and how they process that information. For instance, something that’s seemingly “normal,” like vacuuming the house, might scare a young child. This fear might be revisited during REM which is the sleep stage when dreaming (or nightmares) take place. So, if your child wakes up startled and says that he or she is afraid of whatever is hiding in the closet, then you can help by asking your child to talk about his or her feelings and what happened in the nightmare. In reality, this won’t cause your child to have the recurring nightmares about the same thing as some individuals once believed. Rather, talking helps with processing and overcoming the fear which leads to a more peaceful sleep.

On the other hand, you might encounter a situation where your baby or 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.

A parent looking over their baby sleeping in their crib.

What are other reasons why babies wake up often at night?

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 cause of waking 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 should you do when your baby wakes up screaming?

All in all, you can expect your baby’s sleep patterns to sporadically change 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, you should probably refrain from letting your child fall asleep while eating since you still have to burp him or her. This might cause your baby to remain alert rather than relax.

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. 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, your little one will be enjoying a good night’s rest.

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