Picture this – you are going about your evening or are tucked up in bed asleep and suddenly you are startled to hear your baby screaming and crying.
You know your baby is not hungry or in obvious pain, so what’s going on?
It’s around this time that parents will ask themselves can babies have bad dreams or nightmares.
Bad dreams and nightmares are not thought to start until a child is around 18 months old, so if you have a newborn then something else is probably causing their reaction (we’ll cover these later).
But if you have a slightly older baby or toddler, keep reading to find out what causes nightmares in babies, and what you can do if your child experiences one.
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Do Newborns Have Nightmares?
It is commonly believed that newborn babies do not have nightmares or bad dreams.
One of the primary reasons for this is because a young baby cannot yet grasp the meaning of fear.
This is why experts believe that babies don’t have bad dreams or nightmares until they are at least one and a half years of age, if not closer to two or three years of age.
Why Else Is My Baby Waking Up Crying Or Screaming?
So with nightmares and bad dreams ruled out for newborns and infants, what else could be causing your baby to wake up crying or screaming.
As we recently covered, babies wake up crying or screaming for a variety of physical and developmental reasons, including discomfort, hunger and separation anxiety.
To be more specific, 8 of the most common reasons why your baby might be waking up crying include:
- Hunger (especially during a developmental leap).
- Pain (for example from gas or teething).
- Discomfort within their environment (for example feeling too hot or too cold).
- Illness such as a sore throat or fever.
- Separation anxiety (when your baby wakes up and freaks out that you’re not with them).
- Growth spurts (during a developmental leap your baby will experience sensory changes that affect your child’s sense of taste, smell, sight, hearing and touch – all of which can be somewhat upsetting or stressful for a child and consequently result in unsettled sleep).
- Overtiredness (a well rested baby is less likely to resist sleep and will typically sleep better and for longer periods compared to a baby who is overtired).
- Transitioning between sleep cycles (If you look at your child through their baby monitor and notice their eyes are not open even though they are crying, it’s a big clue they are transitioning between cycles).
Do Babies Have Bad Dreams?
This all depends on what you classify as a baby, because as we saw above, a child is unlikely to have a bad dream until they are at least 1.5 years of age.
So if you are wondering can babies have nightmares at 2 months, 4 months or even at at year old, then answer is probably no.
The same also applies to infants, because strictly speaking an infant is a child who is under 1 year of age.
Keep in mind it’s a difficult area to study and research because newborn babies, infants and younger toddlers cannot express their fears and dreams, so quite simply we aren’t able to know for sure what they may be experiencing while sleeping.
Why Do Babies Have Nightmares?
If you are like most parents then you’re probably more than a little curious about what causes babies to have nightmares, and what causes nightmares in toddlers.
The truth is that no one really knows why babies (by this we mean older than 1.5 years of age), toddlers, older children (or even adults for that matter) have nightmares.
Going back to babies and toddlers, one possible reason is because when a baby goes to sleep, their brain is still actively processing everything they experienced that day.
With your son or daughter’s brain and mind working while asleep, they are lying there dreaming, and from time to time these dreams can turn into nightmares.
Interestingly, researchers believe that nightmares are more likely to happen if your child is experiencing:
What Do Babies Have Nightmares About?
Have you ever wondered what do babies dream about when they have nightmares?
In truth it’s more of a trick question, because if we’re talking about newborns and infants, then as we’ve seen they are unlikely to be dreaming in the first place.
And even if they were having dreaming or having a nightmare, there’s no way to know what was going on inside their head as they can’t tell us!
How To Stop Nightmares In Toddlers
No parent wants to see their child having a nightmare or bad dream, even if whatever is being imagined isn’t real.
If your toddler is experiencing nightmares then the good news is there are some things you can do to help, including:
- Prevent your baby from getting overtired. For example maybe they still need that daily nap or at least some quiet time during the middle of the day to stop them waking up cranky or crying. Perhaps their schedule needs changing if it’s too active and full-on. Or maybe they need to go to bed a little earlier.
- Talk with your child. The great thing about having a toddler is their ability to communicate with you, so now is a good time to make the most of this. Try to delicately find out what might be bothering them by asking questions, but in a tactful way. It might take some patience and probing because a scared child might be reluctant to open up, but if you can be gentle and compassionate in your questioning then you might find out what’s causing their bad dreams and then take corrective measures accordingly.
- Offer a comforting item. When your child has a nightmare what they’re looking for is reassurance from something familiar they can trust. Ideally you don’t want this to be your physical presence, because it means you’ll need to go into their room and comfort them each time they have a bad dream. This is where blankets, loveys, stuffed animals or other similarly comforting items can come in very handy.
Night Terrors vs Nightmares Explained
Finally, when parents talk about a child who wakes up in the night crying, screaming or is disturbed in some other way, it’s easy to interchange the words nightmare and nigh terror.
But that would be a mistake, because there are some key differences between the two as follows.
A nightmare or bad dream happens when a child is in the REM (rapid eye movement) party of their sleep cycle, also known as the dream cycle.
Young children spend much more of their sleep in this lighter phase of sleep, and it’s during this phase that bad dreams occur.
When a child has a nightmare, they will most likely remember what was happening in their dream to some extent, meaning they can tell you what happened if you ask them the next morning.
Night terrors or sleep terrors on the other hand happen during the deeper NREM (non rapid eye movement) stage of sleep.
If your child has a sleep terror, they might cry or scream as they might with a nightmare, but technically they are not awake.
As such, they will not remember what is going on if you try to chat about what happened the next morning, and mom or dad’s reassurance or hugs in the night are likely to go completely unnoticed and have no impact at all.
Some common symptoms of sleep terrors include:
- Waking up suddenly
- Rapid heart rate
- Not being able to recall the episode
- Inability to fully wake up
- Difficultly in being comforted
- It is commonly believed that newborns and infants do not have nightmares or bad dreams, because their brain cannot yet grasp the meaning of fear.
- Babies wake up crying or screaming for a variety of physical and developmental reasons, including discomfort, hunger and separation anxiety.
- Experts believe that nightmares are more likely to happen in toddlers who are overtired, stressed, anxious or are facing a traumatic event.
- If your toddler is experiencing nightmares then there are some things you can do to help, including preventing them from getting overtired, talking with them about what’s real and imaginary, and offering them a comforting item.
- Sleep terrors or night terrors are different to nightmares. When your child has a nightmare they are in a light sleep and will usually remember the details. But if they experience a sleep terror they are technically still asleep and will not recall the event.