Do Babies Have Nightmares?

How Do We Know What's Inside an Infant's Head?

A newborn baby is a creature who has just been expelled from paradise. What could be a better, safer home than her mother’s womb? And what could be harsher than the cold, cruel world the baby so abruptly confronts? No wonder the first action a baby takes is to cry! Unfortunately, infants can’t talk, which limits communication. No one knows exactly when nightmares begin, but thanks to sleep research and close observation, science now has a pretty good idea of the various sleep disturbances babies and toddlers experience, as well as the best methods for handling them.

A Baby’s Sleep Cycles

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Sleep patterns of REM (rapid eye movement) and NREM (non-rapid eye movement) develop over time as your child grows. Sleep disturbances, such as confusional arousal, nightmares and night terrors are known to correspond with the different stages of sleep, so it’s useful to be aware of what they are and when they appear.

Infants typically go to sleep and experience REM activity almost simultaneously; whereas, it takes adults 90 minutes or more to reach REM. Another distinguishing characteristic of infant sleep is the frequency of cycles between non-REM (deepening sleep) and REM (deepest sleep), and, therefore, the number of occurrences of NREM sleep during the night.

Confusional Arousal

Confusional arousal is a physiological sleep disturbance occurring during NREM sleep, and it’s most often seen in babies and toddlers. The child appears agitated, thrashes around and sometimes cries. Of course, any mother would immediately try to console her baby, but when in this state, the baby won’t respond to her. He appears to be awake but is essentially still asleep, even though his eyes might be open. If your child is going through this type of disturbance, doctors agree that it’s best to let it run its course. Don’t attempt to wake up your child, since this will not only be difficult to do but will further disrupt his normal sleep pattern. Allow him to go back to sleep. Your child will not remember the episode afterwards.

Night Terrors

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Night terrors are another form of physiological sleep disruption associated with NREM sleep. They are associated with an over-arousal of the central nervous system and tend to run in families. Night terrors typically occur in kids who are 3 years old or older but have been noted in children as young as 18 months. The child seems to wake abruptly in a state of extreme fear, in some cases to the point of screaming. As with confusional arousal, your child is actually asleep although she may appear to be awake. It’s heartbreaking to watch your baby going through this, and the natural instinct is to reassure and comfort. But again, the medical advice is to stand aside and let the episode run its course. On the bright side, night terrors are relatively rare, and children eventually outgrow them as their nervous systems mature. You can take some measures to help prevent night terrors too. Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine and stick to it. Make sure you child gets enough sleep. Try to reduce the stress in your child’s life as much as possible.


Unlike confusional arousals and night terrors, nightmares (as well as other, happier dreams) take place during REM sleep and usually happen later in the night than other disturbances. Nightmares are mash-ups of memories and fears; theoretically, it’s possible for even babies to have nightmares, since even babies have a cache of remembered experiences—inchoate as they might be. Still, it’s difficult to know exactly when any particular baby might start to have nightmares, and sometimes, it’s even hard to recognize them for what they are when they do show up. The child doesn’t necessarily show any physical signs that he’s having a nightmare while it’s taking place. However, if he does wake up during or just after a nightmare, he is very much aware you’re there and wants consolation from you just as much as you want to give it to him. Even if he has started to talk, he may have trouble conveying the substance of the nightmare to you, but that isn’t as important as the reassurance you can provide. Rock him, sing to him, comfort him and make him feel safe.

Make sure that bedtime is a comfortable, relaxed end to your child’s day. If sleeping with a favorite toy or blanket makes him feel more secure, then by all means, let him do it. Try to avoid loud noises and scary television images before bedtime. As soon as your child can understand, emphasize that nightmares aren’t real and can’t hurt him. If he continues to have sleep disturbances more than a few times a month, consult with your physician to rule out possible underlying issues. Both you and your baby deserve a good night’s sleep!