Skip to main content

Can babies have nightmares? What you need to know

How to help your baby when they have a bad dream

Toddler being comforted in bed after a nightmare.
Maskot / Adobe Stock

Can babies have nightmares? It may seem unlikely that your little one may be experiencing bad dreams, but if your baby has woken up crying for no apparent reason, you may wonder if a nightmare was the cause.

Often when we think of nightmares, we think of how they’re subconsciously caused by our fears, or by something scary we may have watched on television. Since babies aren’t watching scary movies and are mostly exposed to positive and comforting stimuli, parents often wonder if babies can have nightmares and what they can do to help soothe them back to sleep. We shed some light on why your baby may be waking up upset and what you can do to make their nights as peaceful as possible.

Newborn yawning or crying
Tim Bish / Unsplash

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. These are often caused by 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 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 still has his or her eyes closed but cries out loudly and 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.
BFG Images / Getty Images

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

Aside from the usual late-night feedings and diaper changes, the most common cause of 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 their 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.

Baby sleeping with mouth open
Aida Jeddi / Unsplash

Sleep stages

Babies also go through a variety of different stages in their sleep cycle. Babies will experience drowsiness as they’re falling asleep, REM sleep, which is also known as active sleep, light sleep, and then deep sleep as they transition through these sleep cycles. Sometimes when babies are transitioning from one sleep cycle to the next, they may cry out. This is common and is simply a way their body is signaling that they are moving through the stages of sleep. It can be confusing to parents who may wonder why their baby is suddenly crying out in their sleep, but it’s perfectly normal.

silhouette of dad holding baby
The Dennis Family / Shutterstock

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.

child having a nightmare
ArtMarie / Getty Images

The difference between nightmares and night terrors

If you suspect your child may be experiencing something more intense than a typical nightmare, they may be experiencing night terrors. According to Healthline, nightmares happen during REM sleep, which often occurs early in the morning, and your child will typically be able to tell you what their nightmare was about. Night terrors happen when your child is deep asleep, which is typically earlier in the evening. They note that night terrors can last anywhere from 30 seconds to as long as 5 minutes, and often the child will have no recollection. Night terrors are often recognizable by these actions;

  • Screaming or crying
  • Jerking or flailing limbs
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Tense muscles
  • Profuse sweating

Most children grow out of night terrors by the age of 5.

As mentioned, the age 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. Soon enough, your little one will be enjoying a good night’s rest.

Editors' Recommendations

Leslie Anderson
Former Digital Trends Contributor
Leslie Anderson is a freelance writer/writing coach from Roswell, N.M. She enjoys gardening, cooking, and helping students…
How to make baby headbands that are adorable
Easy DIY headbands for baby
Cute baby girl in a headband sitting up.

Can't resist those darling headbands in the baby department when shopping for your little cutie? What is it about a headband that makes it a must-have addition to baby's wardrobe? Headbands became an accessory in the 20s for ladies. The fashion statement became practical during World War II when women wore them to protect their hair while working in the factories. Sports headbands were big in the 60s, 70s, and 80s to keep sweat out of the eyes of top athletes. By the 80s, though, headbands became a popular trend for everyone on and off the field. Bruce Springsteen made headbands a staple when his Born in the USA album took over the charts. Headbands eventually made their way to children because they're stylish and functional. A headband keeps hair out of the eyes and away from the face while adding style to an ensemble.

Today, babies have started wearing headbands, too. Now, babies don't need a headband to keep hair out of their eyes. They just look super cute in an adorable headband that tops off an equally darling outfit. Headbands are picture-perfect for those delightfully sweet baby photos, and let's not get started on the holiday baby pics. DIY headbands for baby are a fun project to get the creative juices flowing, whether you are a do-it-yourself enthusiast or a beginner. So, how do you make baby headbands? Creating a headband for your baby isn't as difficult as you might think, and we have just the inspiration you need to get started.

Read more
When should a baby sleep in their own room? The best time to make the switch
How to tell if your baby is ready to sleep in their own room
Baby sleeping on their back.

Babies grow and develop so much during the first year of their life and with that comes a constantly evolving sleep schedule. Many parents choose to either co-sleep or have a bassinet near their bed to provide as little sleep disruption as possible, especially for newborns. But as the baby gets a little older and begins to sleep longer, many parents find themselves wondering when to move their baby to their own room. From official recommendations to your own gut instinct, we'll take you through how to make these choices.

When to move from a bassinet to a crib
You should move your baby out of their bassinet once they reach its weight limit, which will likely be between 10 and 20 pounds. Additionally, if your baby begins to roll over or sit up, you should move them to a crib. Even if neither of these factors applies, and if you see your baby becoming cramped with its head touching the wall of the bassinet, it's time to move to a crib. You don't have to move from a bassinet to a crib and from your room to their own room at the same time, but it is most convenient for many.

Read more
When can babies have chocolate milk? This is when it’s safe to let your child indulge
How to introduce this beverage to your child
A glass of chocolate milk with a straw

Introducing your baby to new foods is a fun milestone for every parent. Watching your little ones as they experience new tastes and textures is an exciting part of their development. Many parents know when they can begin to introduce milk to their babies, but may wonder if the same rules apply to chocolate milk. Are little babes old enough to try it yet? When can babies have chocolate milk? It can be quite the job to keep up with what babies can have and at what age. So, for this delectable treat, we will help you find out when little ones can indulge in a glass.

Babies shouldn't have sweets or milk if they're not at least a year old. But even if they've celebrated that first birthday, there are other factors to consider.

Read more