Your Baby is Shaking in Sleep: 10 Scientifically Proven Reasons
Have you ever seen your baby shake when she’s asleep? I did plenty of times, and it scared me as hell. I would see my baby shaking in sleep almost every night.
I did what every worried mother would do--rushed her to the ER.
Luckily, there was a pediatrician on duty that night and after a few minutes of checking on my daughter, she let us home.
Because my daughter’s condition was nothing to be worried about.
In the medical world, it’s called benign sleep myoclonus. In our language, that’s hiccups!
Yes, just the simple reaction our body makes randomly is also common among our babies.
Here’s why it looks scary when it happens to our babies.
Benign Sleep Myoclonus
When we hiccup, our diaphragm contracts irritatingly as we breathe in. For our babies, it may be the same.
But because they do not have a good control of their muscles yet, they start to shake.
The reason for sleep myoclonus is idiopathic, meaning it’s unknown, but it is pretty common. It may be hereditary; it may be not. No one really knows.
Mark Blumberg, a professor at the University of Iowa, however, has been studying this phenomenon for two decades, and he may just have the right explanation.
According to him, these movements our babies do in their sleep could be a sign of their sensorimotor development.
It's like their brain circuits are activated, and these circuits tell our little one what they can do with their limbs. Hence, the twitching and shaking in sleep (more details in number 10).
The study is still ongoing, but so far it has been producing interesting results. One of which is the (inconclusive) fact that the part of the body that twitches while asleep is the same part that's being developed.
You really don't have to worry about it.
But, if it's disrupting her sleep like it did with my daughter (she would wail out of nowhere sometimes), you may calm the shaking.
To stop it, you may gently awaken her or give her soft strokes just to let her feel your presence.
This should happen in just a few seconds, ideally less than 20 seconds, and not repeatedly in one minute for it to be considered benign sleep myoclonus. Also, this should happen ONLY when your baby is sleeping. In addition, this is common only for newborn babies up to six months old.
Otherwise, ask your doctor about it or check the list below for other reasons your baby is shaking.
Other Reasons For Shaking
Do not always dismiss baby shaking in sleep as hiccups because it may be a symptom that warrants a needed trip to the doctor.
Here is a short description of each symptom according to pediatriceducation.org.
1. Startle Response
We, as adults, when startled have different reactions. But we have a common denominator--raising our shoulders involuntarily, followed by a sudden inhale and sometimes scream.
For our little ones, since they don’t have muscle control yet, they may start to shake along with the sudden extension of their arms and legs.
What you can do is to swaddle her in a cozy blanket so when she's startled, her arms and legs won't move so much, which may wake her up.
The shaking should last only a few seconds and may be followed by a loud cry. If the shaking doesn’t stop right away, there may be a deeper problem. Consult your doctor about it.
Another reason for a baby's trembling with an idiopathic cause is when our babies are jittery.
How does it look like?
It’s described by rapid symmetrical movements that may involve the jaw.
It’s usually provoked by stimulation and may be stopped with gentle flexion of the arms or legs. Just like the hiccups, this may happen until our babies are six months old.
According to Seattle Children's, this is perfectly normal especially when the baby is crying. If she's not crying but jitters, you may give her something to suck on like a pacifier, your breast, or a baby bottle.
If, however, the baby is calm but still jitters or the jitteriness gets worse, call the doctor immediately.
Seizures happen anytime from birth to adulthood. It’s caused by an “abnormal electrical activity in the central nervous system.”
What does it look like on a baby?
You’ll know your baby is having seizures when she has rhythmic, asymmetrical movements that will cause her to be unconscious at times. Most of the time, their muscle is jerking and eyes are blinking. Also, they don't cry when having seizures.
...there are no known triggers to this movement. It just happens. Also, the duration of each episode varies.
In other words:
You can't really control when it's gonna happen.
Nonetheless, you should take your baby to the doctor immediately.
Another abnormal electrical activity in our babies’ central nervous system is convulsion, more specifically the benign familial neonatal convulsion.
But unlike seizures, this one is characterized by eye deviation and tonic-clonic movements.
When does it start?
It may happen anytime during the first six months with an onset of up to four days and may last for several minutes during each episode.
There are also no known triggers to this.
if your family has a history of convulsion, your little one is prone to getting it as well because convulsion is an autosomal dominant condition.
When this happens, take your baby to the doctor immediately.
First-aid treatments you can do, according to WebMD, are:
- Lying her on her side. Make sure there are no objects near her that block the air way.
- Loosening her clothing, especially the one around her neck.
- Not putting anything in her mouth (e.g. bottle, pacifier, etc.).
- Not restraining her movements.
If she has to vomit, make sure she's still lying on her side. Clean the vomit immediately, particularly ensuring that nothing goes inside her ear.
Infantile spasms are also an abnormality in the central nervous system.
But unlike the other two previously mentioned, this is characterized by clustered jerks that lasts for seconds and repeats again in 15 to 60 minutes.
It happens to infants and babies up to 15 months old, with the 5th month being the mean age. Some babies no longer experience it when they’re about two years old.
There are those who have it until they’re adults and the spasms have already developed into another form of seizure.
You have to take your baby to the doctor as soon as this happens.
6. Sandifer Syndrome
This syndrome is characterized by “dystonic posturing of the head and neck, possible arching of the back, irritability, possible emesis” and may be caused by GERD or gastroesophageal reflux disorder.
She may cry uncontrollably for hours when she's experiencing this.
If you’ve experienced GERD, you probably know how it feels for your baby, only she doesn’t know what exactly is going on.
This may be triggered by feeding and starts from week 3 until the reflux is controlled. Symptoms may also show anytime from week 3 to adulthood.
Ask your doctor immediately.
7. Paroxysmal Torticollis
Another reason your infant twitches while sleeping is paroxysmal torticollis. Although the cause is unknown, you can detect it when your baby is twisting her head and trunk to both sides.
She may seem pale and start to vomit.
The age onset of Paroxysmal torticollis is anytime from week 1 until your baby’s three and stops when she’s 5.
Each movement may last hours and your little one may have several episodes per year.
Once you think your little one is suffering from this, call your doctor immediately.
When your baby shudders, you’ll see her move and shake like a cold water is suddenly poured on her. Although the cause for this is still unknown, some experts are considering a family history of tremor.
Excitement is a possible trigger doctors are looking at.
The movements may be only about 2-3 seconds but it can happen over and over again until she’s in her late childhood.
If it lasts about 5-6 seconds and happens quite often, talk to your doctor about it.
9. Spasmus Nutans
This is another idiopathic movement, but an evaluation looks at a possible tumor in the CNS. When your baby is having Spasmus nutans, she’ll tilt her head to one side then it’ll start to bobble. Her eyes will also start rolling around rapidly.
It may happen any time from 6 to 36 months and will probably be gone by the time she’s two.
Ask you doctor if she needs immediate hospital care.
10. REM and Skills Development
Another reason your baby is shaking in sleep or at least twitching may be related to his sensorimotor development.
When the twitching happens during REM or Rapid Eye Movement, which is basically the time when our babies are in their deepest sleep, it may be because the brain is teaching our little ones about sensorimotor development.
“...when the sleeping body twitches, it’s activating circuits throughout the developing brain and teaching newborns about their limbs and what they can do with them,” says researchers.
As you can see:
There are several reasons our baby shakes in her sleep. It may be something to worry about; it may be something we can shrug off.
...notice that some of these are idiopathic. Hence, there are times when no matter how much you look after your baby like giving her all baby needs or mastering the art of putting her to sleep, they may still show symptoms of being sick.
My point is:
Always have your doctor’s number within reach and always equip yourself with enough knowledge. And remember: seize every moment; don’t mind the mess!