When a baby wakes up suddenly from sleeping and is in distress, parents often try to work out the reason why. Sometimes it’s clear what’s wrong but at other times it can be a bit of a mystery. One theory around why babies wake up abruptly is that it could be due to nightmares, causing the child to wake in fright. The sight of a crying, clearly distressed baby is enough to make any parents heart melt, especially when, until moments before, they were sleeping calmly.
Although there has been a lot of research into brain pattern activity during infant sleep, no one can say with 100% certainty what babies dream of. Their sleep cycles are very different to adults and most of their sleep is in Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM), the phase of sleep when dreams usually occur.
When they are in REM sleep, babies will often twitch, flicker their eyelids, breath irregularly and seem a little restless. Some babies will call out, give a little cry and look as if they are about to wake up. For an observant parent, watching all this activity during what we think should be a quiet, passive time can be confusing. Most of us have experienced nightmares ourselves and it is easy to interpret our children’s restless sleep as being due to frightening imagery.
Although it is tempting, try not to pick your child up when they are showing signs of restlessness or even brief waking. This can lead to the child developing a dependence on always needing you to go back to sleep. If your baby genuinely needs comforting, they will wake up properly and let you know by the tone and pitch of their cry that they need you.
What is the purpose of REM sleep?
REM sleep fills a vital role in helping nerve pathways in an infant’s brain to form properly. It also assists in processing or making sense of the information collected by the brain during wakeful hours. Far from being a time when the brain “shuts off”, REM sleep is an active, vital component of sleep. The images which the brain forms help towards overall maturity and childhood development.
What causes a baby to have nightmares?
Some people believe just the process of being born is enough to trigger nightmares in babies. Others don’t agree and say babies’ brains are too immature to even begin to make sense of their experiences. We do know that children benefit from growing up in predictable, stable homes where parents’ provide comfort and reassurance when they are distressed. We can’t directly influence the nature of our babies’ dreams, though our responses to them are under our control.
Older children: nightmares
Children who have had a nightmare will often sit up in bed and cry out for their parents. They can describe what has frightened them and remember it when they have woken up. Sometimes they are in such a hurry to explain what they have seen, it all comes out in a jumbled confusion. Occasionally, the memory of the nightmare continues into their daily life and the child may have problems separating what is reality and what is the residue of a dream.
What Parents Can Do
Parents need to be emotionally available when their child wakes up in a fright.
- Often sitting on the bed, stroking them, giving a brief cuddle, offering reassuring words like, “You’re alright now, Mummy/Daddy’s here”, is enough.
- A drink of water, staying with them until they are calm, letting them talk about what their dream and what they are frightened of will all help your child to off-load the pictures which remain so vivid in their minds.
- It helps for parents to stay calm themselves and not offer too much explanation for how the dream could not be real. Small children are not capable of logic or reason and what they see they believe to be real.
- Try not to get stressed yourself, but stay relaxed and reassuring. Let them know it is safe for them to go back to sleep and it is your job to keep them safe.
Night terrors are different to nightmares and need to be managed differently. Children will often appear to wake up but they are not completely awake, which makes it difficult to calm them. Night terrors often happen a couple of hours after going to bed, when the child will sit up in bed, with their eyes open and cry and scream. This can be very distressing for parents. In the morning, the child has no recollection of the event even though they seemed so distressed during the night.
Night terrors usually peak in the pre-school to early primary years. They are linked with the concepts of imagination and fantasy, important factors in a young child’s life. They do not reflect emotional or mental health problems in a child and they are not an indicator that there will be problems in the future. Night terrors are usually a harmless, though upsetting, phase in a young child’s life.
There is some debate over how parents should manage night terrors.
- Some experts think the child needs to be woken gently, then reassured and soothed back to sleep. If parents choose to wake their child they need to do so in a gentle though persistent way.
- Others say if is enough for parents to just be in the same room as the child and make sure that they don’t hurt themselves. Night terrors can last for around 10 minutes or more, a long time in the middle of the night.
- Parents need to stay calm themselves and aim to give their child a sense that they are not alone. Even though they may not appear to be even conscious you are present, it is still important that you are physically available and close to them.
- One recommended option is to wake your sleeping child fifteen minutes before the time they usually have a night terror. This is thought to ‘short circuit’ the phase of sleep the night terror occurs in, stopping it before it has a chance to start.
- Barker, R. Baby love. Sydney: Pan Macmillan (2007)
- McGirr, M. The lost art of sleep. Sydney: Picador (2009)
- Baby-Place.com – Nightmare, night terrors and fears – Cited August 2009
- ThelaborOfLove.com – Do babies have nightmares? (http://www.thelaboroflove.com/articles/do-babies-have-nightmares-the-idea-of-whether) – cited August 2009.
Last Published* November, 2021
*Please note that the published date may not be the same as the date that the content was created and that information above may have changed since.