Recognize baby dreams and avoid sleep issues

Author Name: Heidi Holvoet, PhD

Dreams - Nightmares - Night Terrors

Baby dreams, nightmares and night terrors can disturb your child's sleep. Recognizing the type of dream allows you to help your baby sleep well, in spite of them.

Dreaming is natural and has an important function in brain development from a very early age.

Baby dreams photo courtesy by Mariana Braga

Throughout childhood and adult life, dreams are known to affect our intellectual and emotional wellbeing .

A nightmare
is a scary dream. A night terror is quite different: it is not a dream but a confused state when waking from deep sleep.

Below is an overview of how to recognize dreams, nightmares and night terrors and how you can help.

How can you tell if your baby is dreaming?

A dream occurs in a specific phase of sleep, called REM sleep - Rapid Eye Moment. A sleeping baby spends more time in this phase than any other. And so she spends more time dreaming than not dreaming .

During the dream phase, your child appears very active : she'll make (funny) faces, stretch and clutch fingers, wiggle arms and legs about, make soft noises ...
If you look closely, you can see the eyes move behind the eyelids : going quickly from left to right (that's the rapid eye movement ).

How to avoid waking up from baby dreams?

(Why) Does a baby dream?

Do babies dream? Yes, most sleep experts agree that babies dream. And the younger, the more they dream ... even before being born.

Scientists have suggested that an unborn in the womb dreams almost all the time. The function of that prenatal dreaming would be for brain development . [1-3]

A newborn still dreams most of the time when sleeping and so does a young infant. The brain is still in full development.

Very gradually the amount of dreaming becomes less. Adults still dream, but not most of the time. The function of dreams is then less obvious but dealing with emotional situations is one of them ...

Most dreams are gentle and won't disturb nap and nights.

But some babies wake themselves up from waving their arms and legs about. Often this is just a short wake - jumping up - and then they go back to sleep again.

Sometimes it wakes them up completely, over and over again. And that can really make falling asleep difficult - babies usually go straight to a dream phase when drifting off.

To avoid your little one waking herself up :

  • Tightly tuck her in , arms well tucked under the blankets and in the toe to feet position (feet at the foot end of the bed to avoid sliding under the covers for a safe baby sleep position ).
  • Alternatively, use a sleeping bag . The right size sleeping bag gives a good tuck and nicely keeps her legs still.
  • When you hold your little one while she drifts off, for example after feeding, hold her closely and securely her arms.

If she continues to wake up frequently, and your baby has the right age for it to be safe, consider swaddling I recommend checking with a medical professional to make sure swaddling is still safe for your baby.

Dreams - Nightmares - Night Terrors

Article Author: Heidi Holvoet, PhD - Founder, senior sleep consultant

Heidi Holvoet, PhD

Heidi Holvoet, PhD, is the founder of the Baby Sleep Advice website and movement, an award-winning author, baby & toddler sleep consultant with 15+ years experience as well as a certified lactation counselor.

Over the years, Heidi has received several awards inluding a Mom's Choice Award (MCA) and National Parenting Awards (NAPPA) for her Baby Sleep Advice website, programs and books. Also, Baby Sleep Advice was awarded "Most Trusted Infant's Sleep Solutions Company 2023" in the Benelux Enterprise Awards 2023.

Heidi continually conducts personal research and participates in continued education and in that way stays up to date with current scientific and pyschosocial infant care.

Association of Professional Sleep Consultants

She is also a member of the Association of Professional Sleep Consultants of which she was one of the earliest contributors. She obtained her PhD degree in physics at the University of Ghent in Belgium.

Heidi is passionate about helping babies and their parents sleep more and better, with her trademark approach that has been proven and praised time and again by parents worldwide to be effective and truly no-tears. Respect for you as a parent and your baby, is at the heart of Heidi's warm and kind support. Her approach always keeps in mind a baby's needs and abilities at any given age, is based on pediatric science and the most up to date knowledge in infant care and sleep science.

As well as the award-winning baby sleep programs, Heidi offers popular 1:1 consults and easy-access 30-minute SOS Sleep sessions.

[1] Electroencephalography Niedermeyer E., Da Silva F.L. - Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2005.
[2] Ontogenetic Development of the Human Sleep-Dream Cycle Howard P. Roffwarg, Joseph N. Muzio, and William C. Dement - Science, 1966: Vol. 152. no. 3722.
[3] Neonatal Electroencephalography Dreyfus-Brisac C. - Reviews in Perinatal Medicine Vol. 3. p.397, 1979