damircudic/ Getty Images
The question of whether babies can have nightmares is a subject of debate among parents, researchers and sleep experts alike. However, the prevailing understanding suggests that infants, particularly in the early months, do not experience nightmares in the same way older children or adults do.
This is rooted in the fact that the neural and cognitive development required for the complex processes involved in dreaming, including the creation of frightening scenarios, is not fully formed in the early stages of infancy. While babies may exhibit signs of discomfort or distress during sleep, these are not reactions to a nightmare.
Regardless of whether or not it’s a nightmare, it’s important to understand what is disrupting your baby’s sleep in the middle of the night, their sleep cycle, and how to react when their cries seem to be more intense.
“Typically speaking, babies don't tend to have nightmares,” says Alanna McGinn, sleep expert, founder of Good Night Sleep Site and Today's Parent contributor.
This is supported by research shared by the Pediatric Sleep Council. “Many parents wonder if their little one is having a nightmare when he cries out at night or during sleep. We really don’t think that little ones have bad dreams or nightmares,” says Dr. Lisa Meltzer, a licensed child psychologist certified in Behavioral Sleep Medicine by the American Board of Sleep Medicine.
Pediatric psychologist Dr. Catrina Litzenburg of the Cleveland Clinic has also addressed the topic. “It’s thought that very young kids, younger than four or so, generally don’t have fears at nighttime because they don’t developmentally know that there might be things to be afraid of,” says Dr. Litzenburg. What is commonly thought to be a nightmare is caused by another factor.
While you may think your baby is having a nightmare, sleep disturbances usually have a more common explanation. Per McGinn, if your baby is waking up suddenly throughout the night screaming and yelling, it’s more likely a sign of overtiredness or that they haven’t yet acquired the skill of falling asleep again when they wake up.
“Chances are that your baby — especially in that 0-12 month range — isn't necessarily having a nightmare. It could be a hunger issue, a comfort issue or a dirty diaper issue. That is normally what we're seeing happening at that stage,” she explains.
According to McGinn, “Nightmares can happen once a child is around the age of two.”
The Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Litzenburg explains why nightmares begin to manifest at that two-year mark. “We start to see more fear and nightmares in preschoolers. At that age, they’re becoming more creative thinkers, and they have the verbal skills to tell us what they are feeling and dreaming about.”
There are several reasons why babies start to cry suddenly in their sleep, which can mistakenly be attributed to nightmares.
“Sometimes your baby will make noises and cry out and still appear to be sleeping. That is what we call confusional arousal. This happens when baby is transitioning through a cycle of sleep,” says McGinn. Like adults, babies go through different cycles of sleep throughout the night, and as we transition from one cycle into the other, we either fully wake up or partially wake up.
McGinn continues, “Babies go through the same transitions. Sometimes they appear to be awake or appear to still be sleeping, but they are making sounds like crying out, grunting and groaning as they transition through a cycle.”
McGinn outlines another issue that can be confused for a nightmare. “Sometimes babies can wake up fully, and if they don't have the ability to sleep independently, they need an external prop.” This includes a feed, a pacifier, rocking or whichever way they are used to falling asleep to reach that next sleep cycle. She adds, “Your baby might also start crying at that stage as they're transitioning through cycles of sleep.”
“The way you can help your baby sleep more soundly throughout the night is by incorporating certain sleep tools,” McGinn recommends. First, a baby should have a safe, consistent and conducive sleep environment and a bedtime routine that they can expect.
Second, you want to get your baby on an age-appropriate sleep schedule with nap times and bedtimes. That way, baby will go to bed as well rested as possible which helps consolidate sleep and prevent some of those wakings throughout the night or during nap time.
Third, choose an approach to use if the baby does wake up overnight and starts crying. Consider changing how you respond when your baby wakes up crying so that they don’t expect to be rocked, nursed or something else to fall asleep again.
What is perceived as a baby’s nightmare is likely to be confusional arousal where the baby is crying or upset but their eyes are closed and they don’t respond to you. Dr. Meltzer of the Pediatric Sleep Council likens it to sleepwalking or sleep talking, where the baby is sound asleep although they are crying out. The baby is fine so it’s not necessary to wake them up.
Nightmares and night terrors are not the same thing. Nightmares occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, which is a lighter phase of sleep, and tend to startle you awake or leave you feeling scared or even confused. On the other hand, night terrors occur during non-REM sleep or slow-wave sleep, the deepest stage of the sleep cycle. Although you may scream or show other signs of distress during this deep sleep, you’re not awake.
Sleep terrors are more common among young kids, especially those under the age of seven, according to The Cleveland Clinic.
Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners