Dreams occur during the rapid eye movement (REM) phase of your sleep cycle. Dreaming may be part of your sleeping mind’s way of storing memories, processing information from the day, and even regulating its chemistry.
Unfortunately, part of managing events from your day may include stressful or frightening situations or the feeling that you need to prepare for something bad. This can lead to nightmares.
Babies and Nightmares
Adults know that they dream, and often, those dreams are tied to stress or fear. Dreams featuring frightening, grotesque, or disturbing imagery are called nightmares.
Adults know they dream because they can sometimes remember the images or events, especially from nightmares. But what about babies? Do babies dream and, if so, do they experience the same type of nightmares as adults?
Babies do dream, according to sleep specialists, because this is an assumed part of the REM state. Babies, especially infants, spend far more time in this sleep stage than adults.
How can you tell if your baby is having nightmares? With young children, reactions to sleep stages are common, but there are several reactions to both nightmares and night terrors (two very different sleep conditions) that appear similar. Knowing the difference can help you comfort your child.
Dreams and Nightmares in Infants, Babies, and Toddlers
While we can measure sleep cycles in both children and adults, all sleep specialists can tell for sure is that babies spend about twice as much time in the REM state as adults. It is believed that infants, who sleep most of the day anyway, need additional REM cycles as part of their brain’s growth. But does this translate into more dreams?
Since babies cannot tell adults about the imagery they experience at night, the truth is that we may never know what babies dream about. However, they do experience REM states, and they can have strong, negative reactions to these cycles in some cases, indicating that babies do have nightmares.
Toddlers may be able to tell their parents that they experienced a nightmare. This experience seems, for young children, to peak between 4 and 6 years old, or around preschool. This is also when fear of the dark is common for many children. In this age group, new or frightening experiences, images from movies or books, and being under stress to learn and process a lot of new information can trigger nightmares.
Since babies grow quickly, their brains are also under stress, which may lead to nightmares. Unfortunately, the only way for a parent to know that their child is experiencing a nightmare is if they begin crying in a way that indicates fear or stress rather than hunger or seeking attention. Night terrors in children, which are common from a young age through early adolescence, can have similar symptoms to nightmares.
The Difference Between Nightmares and Night Terrors
In general, the difference between nightmares and night terrors is when the event occurs and how the individual reacts.
- Nightmares: These occur during REM sleep. If they are intense enough, the person wakes up experiencing emotional distress. In young children, waking up from a nightmare often involves crying and screaming. Because REM sleep occurs late at night or early in the morning, nightmares are more likely to wake a person up in the early morning hours.
- Night terrors: This sleep disturbance occurs during deep sleep. It is not a reaction to dreams but a physical response without any direct emotional cause. Older children and adults who experience night terrors do not remember the event clearly or at all, and they do not feel distressed or afraid when they wake up. In babies, night terrors will also cause screaming and crying. Unlike nightmares, night terrors are more likely to occur two to three hours into the child’s longest sleep cycle. Children do not typically wake after a night terror.
Hearing your child cry and scream is, of course, enough to send you running from your room to check on them. Since nightmares and night terrors occur at different points in a sleep cycle and children are more likely to be awake after a nightmare, it is important to know how to handle the situation so your child is comforted and can go back to sleep.
What Can I Do When My Baby Has a Nightmare?
It is normal for babies and young children to have nightmares, even if scientists do not fully understand what causes them. If your child is awake and crying in distress, they likely had a nightmare. Comfort them with cuddles, soothing words or songs, and gentle touch, as you normally would when they are in distress.
Babies who regularly wake up in distress from nightmares may have an underlying condition. For example, a sickness that causes fever can lead to feelings of discomfort and distress that may lead to bad dreams. Older babies and toddlers may have seen something that frightened them on television, online, in a book, or even in a piece of artwork. Children with strong imaginations may be distressed by some types of media.
Immediately after your baby has a nightmare, you can:
- Calm your baby with your presence by picking them up and holding them.
- Soothe your baby with words of reassurance.
- Gently place your baby back in their crib when they have stopped crying, but remain present with them as they may feel distressed after being put down.
- Touch them lightly on their back or stay in the room with them until they stop crying.
- Stay in the room with them until they fall asleep.
- Consider feeding them or finding a way to distract them if they have trouble being soothed. Warm milk has been shown to elicit feelings of calm and induce sleepiness.
If your child experiences frequent nightmares, there are some things you can do to lessen the impact on their sleep quality and reduce the frequency of these nighttime disturbances.
- Create a soothing bedtime routine, like reading them a happy story and giving them a warm bath.
- Physical touch, like snuggling during storytime, can help your child calm down and feel safe and secure, which reduces nightmares.
- Stick to the same bedtime every night, and get up at the same time every morning.
- Make their bedroom cozy and comforting with a soft blanket or soothing artwork.
- Add a nightlight to their room, since fear of the dark and nightmares begin around the same age.
- Consider getting the best mattress for your child’s needs so they are physically supported and comfortable.
- Avoid scary images on television or in movies.
- Consider removing TV or computer time from your evening routine with your child or stopping more than an hour before bed.
- Soothe your child when they ask for comfort after a nightmare to help them know they are safe.
Even though the nightmare is not real, your child’s distress is. Part of growing up is to learn the difference between dreams and reality, but their reaction to the nightmare is no less valid.
If you are sleep-training, one recommendation for parents is to ignore the child’s cries or noises when they wake up. There should be a distinction between crying for hunger or attention and crying due to distress.
There are things you should avoid doing because they can make your child more stressed.
- Don’t ignore your child; they will likely only become more upset and frantic.
- Don’t get angry at the child for their reaction to the nightmare.
- Don’t allow them to sleep with you after a bad dream; they may begin to associate nightmares with their bed.
It Is Normal for Growing Children to Have Nightmares
Nightmares are a normal part of the brain’s development process, and they will typically peak between 2 and 6 years old.
About a quarter of toddlers and school-aged children experience one nightmare per week. These occur later in the sleep cycle, around 4 a.m. If your child cries out in distress earlier in the night, they may be experiencing night terrors, which are also common in that age group.
If your infant or young baby is continually in distress at night and waking up frequently, there may be an underlying health cause that leads to pain, gastrointestinal discomfort, fever, or other problems. Rather than waking up from nightmares, your child may be waking up from physical problems.
Consult a pediatrician if they experience routine nighttime distress that seems related to nightmares. Your child may need medication to eliminate an infection, which may reduce their nightmares and help them sleep.