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Are Nightmares Possible Before the Age of One?
Q: Does a child less than a year old have the capacity to have nightmares, and can this be a reason for multiple wake-ups?
A: The chances of a child less than one being woken up by what we term nightmares are slim to none. Although recent sleep research has reversed the formerly held belief that newborns do not dream, it would be highly unlikely that a less than one year-old, well-nurtured child would be repeatedly disturbed by nightmares. Sleep labs have not been able to conclude that children this age experience nightmares; it's possible if a child this age can verbalize upon awakening that you could determine if the distress of a nightmare woke her up.
To put infant nighttime awakenings in perspective, an increase in nighttime awakenings during the second six months is most common. 23-33 percent of one and two year-olds are still waking during the night to an extent that it troubles the parents.
Much more likely causes of regular, repeated nighttime awakenings are: colic, nighttime feedings, excessive feedings before bedtime, food allergies (e.g. cow's milk), environmental disturbances. Everyone, including infants, wakes many times during the night, but we usually go back to sleep without fully becoming awake. If this child awakes several times during the night and can self-calm herself back to sleep, I would not be concerned at all. Parents often attribute wakenings, especially those accompanied by whimpers or crying as proof the child is not sleeping well; this is not the case. If you wish to read much more about this subject and how to help your child get to sleep at any age or stage, I suggest you read Dr. Richard Ferber's "How to Help Your Child Sleep Through the Night". Good luck and pleasant dreams.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.