You’ve read the books. You’ve listened to the experts. It’s been working great. Your baby is sleeping soundly through the night on a consistent basis. But then it happens. Your baby wakes up crying. They’ve just been fed, so they can’t be hungry. Is it a nightmare? Do babies have nightmares?
These are questions that many new parents contemplate when their baby suddenly wakes up howling.
To help explain the cause of these mysterious night time disturbances, we’re going to dive further into answering the question, “Do babies have nightmares?”
What Are Nightmares?
For adults, we generally consider nightmares to be little more than bad dreams. These dreams often happen as a result of an imagined threat or perceived danger.
In the case of children, where imaginations run wild, nightmares can vary widely based on the particular child. Disturbing images, figures, people, monsters, animals, or even ghosts are all commonplace with children’s nightmares.
Some bad dreams are more prosaic. One of my kids used to wake upset about a dream in which one of her friends stole her lollipop.
Can Babies Have Nightmares?
While it’s impossible to know for certain, there are a lot of varying opinions on whether or not babies have nightmares. Pediatric dreaming expert David Foulkes is one person who believes that it’s unlikely that babies have nightmares.
In fact, throughout his studies, Foulkes maintained a commitment to the theory that babies are completely dreamless from birth until about 2-3 years old. His conclusion is backed by over 35 years performing dream research in a sleep laboratory.
While Foulkes’s theory is supported by many other neuroscientists, the fact remains that babies do spend an inordinate amount of time in a REM sleep state (which is when humans dream). According to a study by Harvard Medical School, adults spend an average of 90-120 minutes in the REM sleep state.
Babies, on the other hand, spend about 8 hours in this deep sleep state. Knowing this, it’s hard to believe that babies do not experience dreams of any kind during their early years. And while we’ll likely never have a definite answer to the question of, “Do babies have nightmares?”, we do know that there are valid points for both sides.
What Are Night Terrors?
With the inability of experts to prove whether or not baby nightmares actually occur, the more logical explanation to why your baby wakes up crying may be what medical experts call night terrors.
Night terrors generally occur early in a baby’s sleep cycle, as it typically happens when the baby is not in a REM sleep state. Symptoms that your child may be experiencing night terrors include:
● Screaming or loud crying
● Throwing or hitting objects in or around crib
● A look of confusion
● Thrashing legs and/or arms
Are Baby Nightmares the Same Thing as Night Terrors?
No. The major difference between the two is that we know, for a fact, that night terrors do occur in babies. We do not, however, know for certain that baby nightmares actually happen.
Based on the symptoms of night terrors, a logical conclusion could be made that night terrors occur as a result of baby nightmares. As we’ve mentioned, however, there is no way to confirm that this is the case.
What Can I Do to Get My Baby to Fall Back Asleep?
Regardless of the reason for your baby waking up crying (whether it be nightmares or night terrors), your main objective is obviously to get them back to sleep as soon as possible.
The following short term strategies can serve as a “band-aid” for getting your baby back to sleep:
● Wait 3-5 Minutes. In many cases, the best strategy is to allow your baby the opportunity to ease themselves back to sleep. Give them a few minutes to calm and only intervene when it’s clear that they’re not going to fall back asleep on their own.
● Try Not to Make Eye Contact or Talk to Them. Making eye contact or talking to your newborn may signal to them that it’s time to wake up. Even if you have to change them, it’s optimal to avoid eye contact or talking to let them know that it’s still bedtime.
As we mentioned, the strategies above are short-term solutions. In the end, the best way to get your newborn to sleep through the night is by taking proactive measures that prevent them from waking up in the first place.
Tips for Getting Your Baby to Sleep Through the Night
Here’s a few proactive tips for preventing your child from waking up in the middle of the night:
● Put Them to Bed in a Drowsy State. It’s essential that your baby learns to fall asleep on their own. For this reason, it’s optimal to put them in their crib when they’re drowsy rather than when they’re already asleep.
● Build a Routine. Creating a 30-45 minute nightly routine for getting your baby to sleep will help condition them to realize when it’s time to fall asleep.
● No Late Afternoon Naps. Allowing naps within 3-4 hours of bedtime is a death sentence when it comes to getting them to sleep through the night.
Preventing the Middle of the Night Wake Up
Every newborn eventually goes through a period where they wake up in the middle of the night. And regardless of whether it’s nightmares, night terrors, or caused by another factor, the tips laid out above should aid you in getting your newborn to sleep through the night.