When a baby wakes up suddenly from sleeping and is in distress, parents often try to work out the reason why. Sometimes it’s clear what’s wrong but at other times it can be a bit of a mystery. One theory around why babies wake up abruptly is that it could be due to nightmares, causing the child to wake in fright. The sight of a crying, clearly distressed baby is enough to make any parents heart melt, especially when, until moments before, they were sleeping calmly.
Although there has been a lot of research into brain pattern activity during infant sleep, no one can say with 100% certainty what babies dream of. Their sleep cycles are very different to adults and most of their sleep is in Rapid Eye Movement Sleep (REM), the phase of sleep when dreams usually occur.
When they are in REM sleep, babies will often twitch, flicker their eyelids, breath irregularly and seem a little restless. Some babies will call out, give a little cry and look as if they are about to wake up. For an observant parent, watching all this activity during what we think should be a quiet, passive time can be confusing. Most of us have experienced nightmares ourselves and it is easy to interpret our children’s restless sleep as being due to frightening imagery.
Although it is tempting, try not to pick your child up when they are showing signs of restlessness or even brief waking. This can lead to the child developing a dependence on always needing you to go back to sleep. If your baby genuinely needs comforting, they will wake up properly and let you know by the tone and pitch of their cry that they need you.
REM sleep fills a vital role in helping nerve pathways in an infant’s brain to form properly. It also assists in processing or making sense of the information collected by the brain during wakeful hours. Far from being a time when the brain “shuts off”, REM sleep is an active, vital component of sleep. The images which the brain forms help towards overall maturity and childhood development.
Some people believe just the process of being born is enough to trigger nightmares in babies. Others don’t agree and say babies’ brains are too immature to even begin to make sense of their experiences. We do know that children benefit from growing up in predictable, stable homes where parents’ provide comfort and reassurance when they are distressed. We can’t directly influence the nature of our babies’ dreams, though our responses to them are under our control.
Children who have had a nightmare will often sit up in bed and cry out for their parents. They can describe what has frightened them and remember it when they have woken up. Sometimes they are in such a hurry to explain what they have seen, it all comes out in a jumbled confusion. Occasionally, the memory of the nightmare continues into their daily life and the child may have problems separating what is reality and what is the residue of a dream.
Parents need to be emotionally available when their child wakes up in a fright.
Night terrors are different to nightmares and need to be managed differently. Children will often appear to wake up but they are not completely awake, which makes it difficult to calm them. Night terrors often happen a couple of hours after going to bed, when the child will sit up in bed, with their eyes open and cry and scream. This can be very distressing for parents. In the morning, the child has no recollection of the event even though they seemed so distressed during the night.
Night terrors usually peak in the pre-school to early primary years. They are linked with the concepts of imagination and fantasy, important factors in a young child’s life. They do not reflect emotional or mental health problems in a child and they are not an indicator that there will be problems in the future. Night terrors are usually a harmless, though upsetting, phase in a young child’s life.
There is some debate over how parents should manage night terrors.