You’re just drifting off to sleep when you hear your baby give a loud scream that makes you jump out of bed. You’re halfway to their crib when you realize they’re silent again, and are back sleeping soundly. What gives? Do babies just feel the need to scream like they’re recording a new Aerosmith album every few hours? Or is it possible that your baby just had a nightmare?
Science has helped clear up a lot of information, but the topic of nightmares is still a bit hazy. The truth is, nobody's really sure why babies have nightmares.
“I’m not sure we know scientifically why some get nightmares,” Tsippora Shainhouse, a pediatrician, told me in an interview. “Factors that can increase a chance of experiencing a nightmare include being overly tired, an off sleep schedule, fevers, or emotional stresses. It could also possibly be a coping mechanism or an underlying anxiety or traumatic experience.”
It sounds pretty terrifying to think of your child experiencing a nightmare, especially a baby, but they are fairly common. If your baby is experiencing a nightmare, Shainhouse says they may have arm thrashing, a lot of movement, screams, or appear agitated. Because nightmares occur in the last third of a child’s sleep known as the REM cycle, older children can vividly recall what happened as they are just waking up, but don’t expect your baby to recall visions of murderous sugar plums.
But there are some nightmares where a child can’t remember anything that happened and, unfortunately, will not respond to parents trying to calm them down. Known as night terrors, Shainhouse notes that these occur in one to three percent of children, mostly boys. Unlike nightmares, these occur in the first third of a child’s sleep and are sudden. “The child screams, looks frightened, has dilated pupils, a racing heart, and might have thrashing arms or hyperventilate,” Shainhouse says. “The child can not be woken from sleep and if they do, they will be disoriented. The child is also not aware of their surroundings or that their parents are there.”
Fortunately, children can’t remember these night terrors and have no recollection of them, but the thought of finding your child screaming, thrashing, and unresponsive can be terrifying. The best thing to remember is that your baby is totally fine and that there isn’t much you can do. Like nightmares, there is no real reason for night terrors and if your child experiences them, it doesn’t mean there is anything wrong. Night terrors are more disturbing and upsetting for you than your baby, but these three tips on dealing with night terrors can ease your mind.
1. Don’t Restrain Your Child
Unless your baby is in physical harm, don’t try to restrain them or hold them. Make sure they are safe and wait until any thrashing or rolling around is over. Remember, they have no idea you’re there, so trying to comfort them won’t do any good.
2. Don’t Try to Wake Your Child
Your baby has no idea they’re having a night terror, so they’re not in any distress. They will wake up disoriented and confused, so it’s best to let them do their thing.
3. Prepare Their Room Before Bed
If you know that a night terror might happen, make sure their room is safe, especially if it’s an older child. Clean up any toys on the floor, make sure their crib is free of anything that could harm them, and put up bed rails if necessary so they don’t fall out of their bed with their thrashing.