Dreams and nightmares are mysterious and fascinating aspects of our sleep cycle. While we often associate these experiences with adults, it begs the question: can babies have nightmares? In this article, we will explore the current understanding of infant sleep and dreams, as well as provide tips for parents on how to help their little ones if they are experiencing nightmares.

As parents, all we want is to ensure that our babies are safe and comfortable, even during their sleep. We provide them with a safe environment that is supposed to make them sleep peacefully. But when it comes to nightmares, it's a completely different story. It freaks out every parent and wrenches their gut, imagining that their baby is waking up crying from a nightmare.

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So the question is, are babies even capable of having nightmares? In this article, we will dive into the science behind infant dreams and explore the potential causes of nightmares in babies, including the question: can babies really have bad dreams? We will also give you some practical advice on how to support your little one during these scary experiences.

This article covers:

1. Why Does My Baby Wake Up Screaming At Night?

The harsh truth is that you can never truly tell why a baby wakes up crying. There are several potential reasons why a baby may wake up screaming at night. If the screaming continues for some time and is not related to an illness, then these might be some possible causes:

1. Baby's Temperament

To this day, this gets overlooked a lot. Temperament plays a big role when it comes to baby sleep. There are some babies that will always wake up screaming no matter what you do. My secondborn was like that. He continued this behavior until the age of 3. Whenever he woke up in the middle of the night, he would not whimper quietly. No, he would literally scream my ear off. That was just him.

2. Hunger

This is one common reason why babies wake up crying. Hunger is an intense feeling for babies and can quickly lead to crying. For the first year, it is very normal for babies to wake up hungry in the middle of the night.

3. Reflux

Reflux, stomach troubles, or digestive issues are often not so easily detectable. Babies with silent reflux can feel uncomfortable when lying down. When a baby is experiencing discomfort from gas or bloating, they may also wake up crying. If you suspect any of these conditions, it's important to consult with your doctor.

4. Light sleepers

While most babies are somehow light sleepers, there are some babies that are very receptive to outside noises when sleeping. Many light sleepers will wake up crying when transitioning from deep sleep to light sleep or from one sleep cycle to another. It seems that they are not even fully awake and don't respond to you.

5. Separation anxiety

As babies become more aware of their surroundings, they may experience separation anxiety and wake up crying for their parents. Separating anxiety can start as early as 4 months of age.

Related Article: Is Your Baby A Light Sleeper? 9 Solutions To Get Them To Sleep & Stay Asleep

2. When Do Babies Start Dreaming?

During the early stages of life, babies spend most of their sleep time in rapid eye movement (REM). Humans will spend more time in REM sleep as newborns than during any other time of their life.

This sleep stage, which is characterized by fast, random eye movements, is also associated with dreaming. However, the dreams of newborns and infants are thought to be simple and focused on sensory experiences, such as smells, sounds, and images from their environment.

As babies grow and develop, their dreams become more complex and similar to adult dreams, including storylines and emotions. This development of dreaming is closely related to the development of the brain and cognitive abilities. Baby's abilities in cognitive functions like decision-making, negotiating, testing a parent, or emotional regulation also increase with age, which all can lead to having dreams.

Research on the dreams of toddlers is also limited. However, it is believed that toddlers have similar dream content and complexity as adults, but with some differences.

Toddlers are at a stage of development where they are starting to understand the world around them and are beginning to form memories, so their dreams are likely to be influenced by their experiences and emotions. Toddlers' dreams may include familiar people, places, and objects from their daily lives, and they may also dream about events that have recently happened or those they have heard or seen.

Toddlers may also dream about the things that they are currently learning about and experiencing, such as animals, numbers, colors, and shapes. They may also dream about their emotions, such as fear, happiness, and frustration.

Related Article: How To Survive The 4 Month Sleep Regression With An Actual SMILE

3. What Science Says About Babies And Dreams

There has been quite a debate about whether babies dream or not, so it should be mentioned that there's no definitive research that confirms or denies that babies can have dreams.

Researchers found that the majority of their sleep is spent in the REM stage, which is the stage associated with dreaming. Another study found that infants as young as 6 months old have dream-like patterns of brain activity during sleep, similar to those seen in adults.

David Foulkes, one of the world's leading experts on pediatric dreaming, wrote that "if an organism gives evidence that it can perceive a reality, then we are prone to imagine that it can dream one as well."

Other neuroscientists believe that the REM-sleep newborns and babies are experiencing has a different role than in adults. It is less for dreaming but more to build new pathways in their brain.

It's important to note that research is still ongoing, and much is still unknown about the content and nature of babies' dreams. The studies that have been conducted are based on assumptions and theories.

4. Can Babies Have Nightmares?

Since it cannot be fully confirmed that babies don't dream, it is possible that babies can have nightmares.

However, it is less common than in older children and adults. The content and complexity of nightmares in babies are thought to be simpler than in older children or adults, as babies have not yet developed the cognitive and emotional abilities to understand and process the events that happen in their dreams.

At the age of 1, babies develop what is called the "character of the self". This means that they start to realize that they are their own little person, separate from their caretaker. And as babies reach the age of 2, they often start to develop their first fears. It is quite possible that these huge milestones play a role in their dreams.

It's important to note that nightmares in babies are still relatively rare, and most crying episodes during sleep are caused by other factors.

5. What To Do If Your Baby Has A Nightmare

It is tough for a parent to see their baby in distress, fearing they had a nightmare. But you are their safe place, and even when they don't stop crying, immediately remember that with only your presence, you are immensely helping them.

Here are a few things you can do to help your baby feel better:

  • Comfort your baby by holding them and talking to them in a soothing tone.
  • Reassure your baby that they are safe and that you are there to protect them.
  • Help your baby relax by singing a lullaby or reading a story.
  • Offer your baby a pacifier or water.
  • Try to create a calm and peaceful environment in your baby's room by keeping the lights dim and the noise level low.
  • You can try to distract your baby by giving them a toy or a favorite blanket to hold.
  • Stay with your child as long as they need you.

Related Article: A Toddler Bedtime Routine That Will Make Your Toddler Stop Fighting Sleep

6. Babies And Night Terrors

If your baby wakes in the middle of the night and is completely unconsolable, doesn't react to your attempts to comfort them, or their crying even gets worse, then you might deal with night terrors.

Night terrors are relatively uncommon in babies younger than 18 months but can still occur in younger babies.

1. What are night terrors?

A Night terror, also known as confusional arousal, is a sleep disorder that can occur in babies, children, and adults. These episodes usually occur within the first few hours after falling asleep and can last from a few minutes to several hours.

During a night terror, a baby may appear to be awake and alert, but they are not fully conscious and are often difficult to rouse. They may also have difficulty recognizing familiar people or surroundings and may be confused, disoriented, or agitated. They may have a blank stare, be sweating, have a fast heart rate and breathing, or even have a temporary sleep-walking episode.

2. What is the difference between a bad dream and night terrors?

Dreaming always happens in REM sleep, while night terrors occur during the transition from deep sleep to rem sleep. When your baby wakes from a scary dream, they are fully conscious and up. A baby that is having a night terror is, however, still sleeping, even when their eyes are open!

3. What causes night terrors?

Night terrors are not caused by nightmares or bad dreams, and the person usually has no memory of the episode once they fully wake up. In babies, the main cause of night terrors is believed to be overstimulation.

Your baby may also be more susceptible to night terrors if night terrors run in your family (former sleepwalker talking).

Other factors that can contribute to night terrors are stress, overtiredness, sickness, separation anxiety, major life changes, or a changed sleeping environment.

In some cases, night terrors may be caused by an underlying medical condition, such as a sleep disorder, and it's always a good idea to consult a pediatrician if the baby is experiencing frequent or severe episodes of night terrors. A pediatrician will be able to rule out any underlying medical conditions and help provide strategies for managing night terrors.

It is also worth mentioning that night terrors usually only occur once a night. So if your baby wakes up crying several times a night, chances are you are not dealing with nightmares or night terrors.

4. What you can do about night terrors

Even though night terrors are very scary, they are not dangerous! It is important that you stay calm and don't freak out. While there are no scientifically proven remedies to prevent night terrors, there are still some things you can try to minimize the risk of night terrors.

1. Reduce stress: Reduce stress in your family, avoid talking too loud noises (by that, I mean arguing, but I am trying to wrap it up nicely), and keep away from too big family gatherings.

2. Avoid overtiredness: For little babies, overtiredness can still be a big thing. Try to get your baby to sleep before they show any signs of being overtired.

3. Fill their emotional cup: Have a lot of one-on-one time during the day. Fill your bedtime routine with a lot of cuddles to fill their emotional cup.

4. Use white noise: Night terrors can occur if your baby wakes during their deep sleep. Use white noise to mask any unwanted sounds from traffic or other family members.

5. Don't wake your baby: During a night terror, you should not wake your baby. It can leave your baby more disoriented, scared, and confused. Just comfort them with your presence.

As your baby grows, their nervous system continues to develop, and their sleep patterns will change. Night terrors are most common in preschool years (3-4 years) but sometimes still occur in young children until the age of 12. However, night terrors usually also go away on their own.

7. Conclusion

While nightmares and night terrors can be stressful and also frightening for parents, remember that bad dreams have nothing to do with you. It is not an indicator of whether your child is happy or not. They are simply processing so much information at such an incredible pace that a nightmare is sometimes the result. Just be there for your little one and provide the comfort they need.