Faced with an inexplicable crying infant, every parent has wondered: can babies have nightmares? As we all know, babies cry… and cry… and scream… and cry. It’s what they do, at all hours of the day and night; and it’s very difficult to tell what it is they’re upset about.
You’ve fed him. You’ve burped him. You’ve made sure he’s at optimal temperature. You’ve changed his diaper and rocked him gently. You’ve even sung every lullaby you know and even some you don’t.
And yet he’s still crying.
At that point, it’s not at all uncommon to wonder if nightmares could be playing a part in those middle-of-the-night interruptions, so let’s take a look at the facts.
No, this doesn’t mean your baby will start singing about the end of the world in a chipper manner (yet); but refers to its sleep cycle. REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep is classified as ‘active’ sleeping and is the portion of regular sleep cycles that promotes dreaming.
The length and regularity of REM sleep changes as our bodies grow older, but it seems to occur at a higher rate the younger we are. Adults tend to spend around 25% of their nightly sleep in REM patterns compared to 50% in babies – which could mean that you dream almost half as much as your baby does.
But what could a baby, with no logical understanding of the world dream about?
It’s not entirely clear, but popular opinion amongst sleep experts seems to say that when your baby dreams, he or she isn’t actually having a cogent, understandable dream like we might have.
Often dreams are the brain dumping information it doesn’t need, or mulling things over that have been pestering us – hence why so many nightmares are directly related to real, stressful events. Remember that dream about wetting your pants in the middle of maths class, only to realize you weren’t even wearing pants? No? Just me? Ha ha… anyway, where was I?
Given that babies don’t yet understand the world around them, their dreams are more likely to be made up of incredibly abstract imagery without making any kind of sense. Kind of like a surrealist landscape, or a Tommy Wiseau film.
Can babies have nightmares?
Guessing that babies have no real idea what may be happening in their dreams, it only makes sense to wonder: can babies have nightmares from REM sleep?
It’s very difficult to tell, without having an Inception-esque device on hand, whether a baby is having what we might call a nightmare or is crying/upset for another reason. Some believe that babies can still remember the traumatic experience of actually being born, and may replay this existentially bamboozling experience in their minds whilst they sleep.
Others think that in lieu of ‘nightmares’ babies can suffer from something resembling night terrors instead. These experiences are different from nightmares in that they cause the child a great deal of distress, whilst occurring in a sort of sleep-walking type of manner.
Older children (with teeth, hair and the ability to talk) frequently report having no recollection of a previous night’s terror – whilst the poor parents will have suffered a night of alarm.
Often, when this occurs in babies it can seem like he or she is awake and frightened because of a bad dream, but is actually still semi-asleep and instead working through some anxiety in the form of those abstract images or sounds that constitute ‘baby dreams’.
All of which is to say – instead of dreaming about a clown or a huge spider and then waking up in fright, the baby is simply reacting to a confusing series of images in their mind whilst sleeping.
This isn’t the be all and end all, though. There are, of course, external influences that might cause sleeplessness and distress for your baby.
The most common example is stress as a result of being separated from its mother at night – remember that babies spend nine months almost literally joined at their mother’s hip. To suddenly be stripped away from that warm embrace and left in a lonely room night after night can feel like a sudden, stressful and deeply worrying change.
Over time, your child will grow out of this clinginess and become more self-sufficient; so it’s important not to go too far in comforting them at night. Often the best reaction to a night terror is just to let it run its course (usually with you lurking nearby and counting down the hours till that morning coffee).
And, of course, you needn’t do it without props. I speak from experience when I say that getting a white noise machine for babies is a godsend. It drowns out anything from little to jarring noises and it apparently mimics the noise they’ve become accustomed to hearing in the womb. It works. Get thee one.
Should I be worried?
Nobody likes to think their child is suffering or in danger – and there’s no quicker way to jump to that conclusion than watching your baby thrash around in bed, crying. Generally speaking, though, there’s nothing to be too alarmed about if you think your baby is suffering from nightmares or night terrors – they’re really no more harmful than our own normal nightmares.
Often the best course of action to cut down on night terrors is to provide a warm, calming environment throughout the waking day; the less stressful or unusual events that occur while conscious, the less likely your baby is to carry any ill-feelings over into sleep. And of course, you can always pick up a soothing sound machine for your baby.
So: can babies have nightmares? Eh, sort of…