The Truth about Children’s Dreams, Nightmares, and Night Terrors

Dr. Greene answers a reader's question about children's dreams. The truth about children's dreams, nightmares, and night terrors may surprise you.


Dr. Greene, when does a child start to dream? And at what age do nightmares or night terrors begin?
Tim Allen - Anchor/Producer - New Cumberland, Pennsylvania

Dr. Greene’s Answer:

The truth about children’s dreams, nightmares, and night terrors will surprise you.

Children’s Dreams

Dreams have been described since the beginning of human history, but it was only in 1953 that Aserinsky and Kleitman discovered the brain wave pattern we call REM (rapid-eye-movement) sleep. During sleep, we go through four progressively deeper stages of sleep (stages 1 to 4) in which the brain is quiet but the body may move or shift.

In a separate stage, called REM sleep, the brain is highly active, but the body seems paralyzed (except for the eyes, which dart back and forth). This REM sleep is what we know as dreaming. As adults, we spend about 20% of our sleep time in REM sleep.

A preschool-aged child patters down the hall in the middle of the night to appear at her parent’s bedroom door. Tears streak her face. “Mom, I’ve had a bad dream!” she reports. “Robbers were chasing me!”

At age 3 or 4, most children begin remarking about their dreams. In their desire to imitate adult behavior, children at that age assert (with confidence) many things that aren’t quite factual. Are they really having dreams? Or might they be using their fertile imaginations to describe what they’ve heard others talk about, perhaps as yet another way to try to maneuver into the parents’ big bed?

“I can’t sleep. Can I get in?”

Alternatively, might children’s dreams begin even earlier, and only start talking about it as preschoolers?

To solve this mystery, Roffwarg and associates undertook a classic study in 1966 (the associates included Dement, whose popular new book The Promise of Sleep is getting rave reviews). The research team began by studying sleep waves in newborns. The investigators believed that infants do not have REM sleep because they do not dream, but the researchers intended to discover what newborn sleep waves looked like. The team would continue to measure sleep waves throughout infancy and toddlerhood to learn when and how dreaming begins.

Baby Dreams

The startling discovery was, not only do newborns dream — even on the first day of life — they actually dream more than the college students in the original studies (Science, 1966; 152:604).

This study has been repeated several times, confirming and expanding our knowledge. We dream more in the first 2 weeks of life than at any other time. The visual part of the brain is more active during newborn REM sleep than during adult sleep. They seem to have more vivid visual dreams.

Infants 3 to 5 months old dream much more than infants 6 to 12 months old do. 18-month-olds dream almost twice as much as 3-year-olds do. By age 3, the amount of time spent dreaming per night is in the same range as that of young adults. As the wheel of time turns throughout life, each year we dream a little less (Science, 1966; 152:604).

If children dream from the moment that they are born, might they dream before that time? We now know that they begin to sleep at as early as 4 weeks of gestation (Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 1975; 38:175). REM sleep waves have been found at as early as 28 weeks of gestation, and REM sleep waves accompanied by the eye movements of dreams by 30 weeks of gestation (Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine in the Child, WB Saunders, 1995). It seems dreaming begins 2 or 3 months before babies are even born!

Children’s dreams appear to be a kind of parallel processing by which we integrate our experience, making new connections in our brains. In the uterus, babies probably dream about the muted light they see and the sounds they hear (heartbeats, voices, and music). After birth, perhaps they dream about the explosion of new sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and textures as they delight in getting to know their parents.

We may dream more during the day than we do at night! As mentioned earlier, when we sleep, we dream only about 20%of the time. During non-REM sleep, the brain rests. Growing evidence suggests that we have real dreams all day long, but these are not noticed because of the “loudness” of our senses and our conscious thinking (Principles and Practice of Sleep Medicine, WB Saunders, 1994). In a similar way, we have an unobstructed view of stars in the sky all day long, but we can’t see them because they are overwhelmed by the light of the sun.

At night, the stars and the dreams come out.


Nightmares are unpleasant dreams that awaken a dreamer from sleep.

Traumatic events are known to cause a predictable pattern of nightmares: first dreams that relive the event, then dreams that relive the primary emotion of the event using different scenarios (different pictures), then dreams that incorporate aspects of the event into other parts of life. Nightmares are an important means of addressing difficult events and emotions to weave them into the fabric of our minds in a constructive way. Because the forces that produce nightmares are simpler than the complex drives that may initiate our other dreams, nightmares might be a good entrance into understanding the significance of dreams in general (Psychiatry, 1998; 61:223-238).

Nightmares are thought to be most common between the ages of 3 to 5 years –the peak age for fears — they are said to begin around that time, or shortly before. Though I don’t know of any others who concur, the available evidence leads me to a vastly different conclusion: that just like other dreams, nightmares are most common long before the preschool period.

Stressful events, such as injections, circumcision (which should never be done without anesthesia), being left alone or dropped, or even feeling hungry, need to be learned about and integrated. It seems to me that anything worth crying about is worth dreaming about.

We know from older children that nightmares commonly follow surgery (Anesthesia and Analgesia, 1999; 88:1042-1047), tooth extraction (British Dental Journal, 1999 13; 186:245-247), and motor vehicle accidents (European Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 1998; 7:61-68). Why wouldn’t they follow childbirth?

We don’t want to believe that our little ones experience anything unpleasant. So strong is this desire that it led to the long-held (now finally and forcefully disproved) belief that newborns don’t feel pain when circumcised. How absurd!

Knowing how much young babies dream and cry (and wake up crying), it seems equally absurd to me to believe that all of their dreams are happy ones. Birth is a wonderful and terrible experience. There is much to be happy about and much to learn about in the weeks that follow. Babies’ dreams must incorporate and address those things that bring them pleasure and those that make them cry. In all likelihood, the peak age of crying, the first 6 weeks, is also the peak age of nightmares.

These nightmares are not unsuccessful dreams. Far from it! They help babies learn and grow; nightmares may even be an important reason that crying diminishes after 6 weeks.

Night Terrors

Confusional arousals (popularly called night terrors) are an entirely different phenomenon, which I have described elsewhere. These happen when children get stuck between two stages of non-REM sleep. They might talk, scream, or open their eyes, but they aren’t awake and they aren’t dreaming.

Recently, my youngest son was having a confusional arousal, and his mother observed that these events are most common at the same ages that children are becoming aware of the bladder feeling full during sleep. Perhaps these kids just need to go to the bathroom. We stood him in front of the toilet, and he urinated-still not awake. The episode faded abruptly, and he returned to sleep. The calm was dramatic.

Was this a coincidence? Or might this be a revolutionary new help for parents whose kids have these frightening episodes? If readers try this and let me know what happens, we will find out. If you give it a try, let me know the results, either way.

We may not understand children’s dreams, but aren’t they angelic when they are asleep?

Last medical review on: January 13, 2015
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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Recent Comments

Thanks for this article. It helps me to understand a little bit more about my deceased son, he was born with a very bad heart , he used to wake up screaming into the monitor and I would run in and he’d be sleeping! My baby was having night terrors about all the doctors and nurses did for and to him! He went through open heart surgeries but his main downfall was mental health which was not linked to chronic illnesses! But we now know better! Thanks again for the information.!

Hey, When I was younger I used to have constant night terrors, a lot of the night terrors would be in textures I wasn’t dreaming but I wasn’t awake, it “felt” smooth, I think I was in a sleep paralysis, but while the texture was smooth it was ok, but it would switch to a specific rough but not rough texture and I would feel instant pure fear, and it would switch back, and then switch back and then stay the bad texture, and my mom would have to somehow wake me up because I would be trying to get out of the room and I would be screaming and crying and pleading for it to stop. Another one is I was dreaming before the night terror, but it was such a reoccurring nightmare that I knew in the dream it would lead to the night terror, I would be somewhere sometimes at my grandma’s house and there was this invisible portal thing, and if I got to close to it, it would suck me in, and when I would be inside of it it’s like I stopped existing, inside was so tiny and a lot of the times there was the same texture and there was colors going past me and I couldn’t stop and the fear kept rising. Then all of a sudden I would be trying to get woken up by my mom feeling the same fear cause I was screaming trying to get out and stuff. I think nightmares, sleep paralysis, and the confusion arousal in that order played a role in making it so terrifying. I’ve always had sleep issues when I was young, sleep talking, sleep apnea, sleep walking, sleep kicking, night terrors, insomnia, nightmares. I’m 18 and it’s weird because I’ll sometimes wake up in the middle of the night randomly with the same intense fear but I think all it does now is trigger a panic attack, my panic attacks have the same textured feeling as the terrors as well.

My 3 month old daughter has started to have confusion arousal. She will be dead asleep and then start screaming, and I mean screaming at the top of her lungs in complete terror. She doesn’t seem to be awake and it take several minutes to soothe her. Prior to this she would whimper and make pouty faces in her sleep :(((( I suffered from extreamly vivid nightmares most of my childhood as well as sleep walking. My father still sleepwalks, talks and eats every night (we have to take the knobs off the stove :/ )Maybe it’s hereditary… I hope not!!

Same with me. I wish they could figure a better way out rather than terrifying our sweet babies ☹️

My daughter just had her two month check up and vaccinations. She now will wake up from napping with a yell or a gasp and look of complete confusion. And when she cries it’s more intense then it was before the shots.

Same with me. I wish they could figure a better way out rather than terrifying our sweet babies ☹️

My 9 month old baby cries loud in the middle of the night with a scary cry like she is frighten is that normal I feed her a bottle and she falls asleep again and couple minutes later their she goes again crying

My 3 week old has been having what we suspect are nightmares since his first day of life! He cries and squirms for a few seconds but is still sound asleep. It scared the daylights out of us for the first week or so! He makes all kinds of noises in his sleep, so we got used to it and now we don’t wake up unless he is crying for real!!!

My son started to get nightmares (I wouldn’t call them “night terrors”) just before 3mo (now 13mo). I’m not talking about him simply stirring in his sleep. Nor when he’d wake-up and maybe fuss for a sec or two as he rolls over before passing back out. I’m talking about when he just wakes up out of almist nowhere screaming, terrafied. This isn’t his “I’m hungry,” cry. (Even though sometimes at night when he gets up he acts like he’s dying or something. Haha.) Anyways, it did start before he was on his reflux medicine. And continued after (he did very well on it.) He has now long since grown out of it. Plus these cries and the cries of when it was his reflux, are typically very different. For a while it got pretty bad. Especially after his dad and I would have a big argument or something similar to that. He doesn’t have them as much now, but the one he had a week or two ago was really bad. He actually wanted sleep next to me (something he grew out of around 5mo,) and I gad a hard time getting him to want to sleep in his crib for 2 days (he actually really likes his crib.) He just wakes up screaming his head off. You can’t even try to set him down for a while. He’ll even refuse all food. Even after he realizes what it is. (Sometimes he gets himself so worked up he wouldn’t realize the food wad there unless you rubbed the nipple in his mouth or squeezed the bottle to squirt some out.) Eventually he calms enough that I can set him next to me on the bed. But I still have to stay up w/him. Usually at this point I can calm him more by playing w/him for a bit. Than I can usually get him to take a bottle. By than he is uaually calmed and tired enough that he doesn’t put up a huge fight when I put him back in his crib. Though there has been several times I’ve had to push him in his umbrella stroller to knock him out first. Though there had been nights I had to do this w/out his nighmares. Usually it takes about an hr before he’s out enough. (Unless their dog barks or they stomp down the stairs.)

Is it possible for my 7 (almost 8) month old to have night terrors?

My sister used to have night tterrorsmy parents wkhld never wake her bjt my dad said the only thing to get her to calm down would be to walk her to the toilet for a wee