Once your baby has finally settled down for a nap, you probably love to admire their adorable, peaceful little face while they’re snoozing. However, you may notice that while your newborn is deep in dreamland, your baby might twitch now and then. Maybe they occasionally move or flex their hands, feet, arms, legs, or face muscles.
Sleep twitching is very common. Most instances of a baby twitching in sleep are perfectly normal, but there are exceptions.
We know that as parents, anything new that happens to your baby can send you into panic, especially something that doesn’t necessarily look right. Baby sleep patterns and behaviors can be especially tricky to figure out. Seeing rapid or jerky movements when your baby is asleep can be a scary experience, and it’s important to know what to do.
We hope this article will help you better understand your baby’s twitches and determine the right course of action to help your little one get their all-important ZZZs.
Is It Normal for Babies to Twitch in Sleep?
Most of the time, a newborn twitching in their sleep is a completely normal phenomenon and a sign of a developing brain.
A newborn’s nervous system isn’t fully developed, so they may experience twitching and jerking movements at night and when napping. As your baby grows and develops, these movements become more natural and less twitchy.
It’s common for sleeping babies to exhibit little movements in their legs, arms, toes, fingers, eyes, mouths, cheeks, and eyebrows. Many parents assume these are just responses to dreams, but as we’ll discuss, researchers think these little twitches are an important part of sensorimotor development.
There are cases when twitching can indicate a more serious issue — more on that below.
What’s going on when babies twitch?
There are several possible reasons for babies twitching while asleep. Most commonly, it’s an ordinary sign of healthy development.
One study at the University of Iowa showed that twitches occurring during the REM sleep phase might be related to sensorimotor development. Twitches could be a part of the process that helps babies develop healthy mobility and movement control.
Mark Blumberg, a neuroscientist and the department chair at Iowa’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, said of the study, "We are beginning to see intriguing relationships between twitching and the skills that babies are developing.” There may be a relationship between neck twitches and infants developing the ability to support their heads upright when awake, for example.
Another scientist in the study, Greta Sokoloff, explained: "Once the infants are able to support their head while they are awake, the proportion of neck twitches to other types of twitches goes down.” She added, "We are looking for relationships like these where we can potentially use twitches to predict the onset of new motor skills and perhaps, in time, detect developmental problems.”
In rarer cases, babies twitching while asleep can indicate other issues. The researchers hope that studying early sensorimotor development through things like infant twitches may also help understand the development of neurodevelopmental disorders. "Although often overlooked, there is a substantial problem with the sensorimotor system in these disorders," said Blumberg.
How Do You Know if Your Baby’s Twitching is a Cause for Concern?
So, how do you determine if your baby’s sleep twitching is normal or cause for concern? Here, we’ll explore some conditions that cause babies to twitch when they sleep. While some are benign, others may require medical attention.
As you read through, remember that diagnosing such conditions on your own is not advised. If you feel there is an issue, don’t ignore your instincts and make an appointment with your pediatrician. Recording your baby’s sleep movements on video can be helpful so your doctor can better evaluate what you are witnessing.
Myoclonus describes brief and involuntary muscle movements. Myo comes from the Greek word for muscle, and clonus means twitching. Hiccups are one example of myoclonus.
Sleep myoclonus, or benign neonatal sleep myoclonus, is a disorder in young infants involving quick, repetitive muscle jerks during sleep. It’s believed to be a benign condition that is a normal part of infant development and doesn’t pose any danger to the baby.
According to the Sleep Foundation, myoclonic jerks happen most often from a baby’s birth up to 6 months of age. They look like involuntary jerks that last just a few seconds, often in the arms, legs, and core. The jerks will immediately stop when the baby wakes up, or they may stop while the baby is still asleep.
Though benign neonatal sleep myoclonus is not harmful, some parents find it hard to distinguish it from epilepsy. If you are concerned about your newborn shivering, twitching, or shaking in their sleep, please speak to a medical professional.
Periodic Limb Movement Disorder
According to Children’s Health, pediatric periodic limb movement disorder is a neurological disorder that disrupts the ability to stay still while sleeping.
Periodic limb movements can resemble quick twitches, jerky legs, or flexing feet. Leg jerks may happen in clusters of several minutes to several hours, in which the twitches happen every 20–40 seconds.
Pediatric periodic limb movement disorder is often accompanied by restless leg syndrome, in which children have an uncontrollable urge to move their legs while awake.
Unfortunately, the exact cause of PLMD is unknown. However, it can seriously impact a child’s sleep quality and go hand-in-hand with various other medical issues, so it’s essential to see a medical professional for evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment.
Benign Familiar Neonatal Convulsions
Medline Plus explains that benign familial neonatal seizures (BFNS) involve recurring seizures in otherwise healthy newborns, lasting up until around 1 to 4 months of age. After that, the seizures usually go away. About 1 in 100,000 newborns have this somewhat rare genetic condition, usually inherited from one of the parents.
After the symptoms go away, most infants with BFNS go on to develop normally, but a small percentage may develop intellectual disabilities, epilepsy, or other conditions. A specialist can diagnose the condition with an EEG and other tests, after which they can help create a course of action for treatment.
A febrile seizure, according to the Mayo Clinic, is a seizure caused by a fever in a young child. These occur in normally healthy children, only last several minutes, and are usually harmless. That said, they can be very scary to witness.
A child having a febrile seizure usually has a fever higher than 38 degrees C (100.4 degrees F), may lose consciousness, and experience uncontrollable shakes. Most commonly, this lasts a few seconds to 15 minutes. Complex febrile seizures may last longer than 15 minutes, happen multiple times in 24 hours, and be specific to one side of the body.
The Mayo Clinic recommends calling your doctor and bringing your child in for an evaluation if parents believe that they have had a febrile seizure.
Epilepsy is a disorder that causes seizures. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, this happens when abnormal electrical signals interrupt normal brain activity. A child may be diagnosed with epilepsy after 2 seizures.
Symptoms of epilepsy in children include: jerking and twitching the arms and legs, losing consciousness, staring, sudden stiffening, abnormal breathing, abnormal eye movement, and more. It may be caused by infections, head injuries, preterm births, and other health conditions. However, many cases of epilepsy don’t have known causes.
It’s important to take your baby to a medical professional for a diagnosis. They may run tests such as an MRI, CT scan, blood tests, an electroencephalogram, and more. Epilepsy in children is treated with medicine, diet changes, or surgery, depending on the severity and type of seizures they are experiencing.
The Epilepsy Foundation explains that infantile spasms, sometimes called West Syndrome, is a more specific term for epilepsy in children starting around 3–8 months of age. They don’t often occur during sleep; instead, they happen most often just after the baby wakes up.
Infantile spasms may be diagnosed with a variety of different tests. Once again, if your child has infantile spasms, you should be referred to a specialist to determine the right course of action.
Baby Twitching in Sleep: Are There Any Treatments?
Treatment depends on the underlying cause of twitching or tremors in newborns. In most cases, twitches are caused by sleep myoclonus. As we discussed above, this is generally harmless, and these twitches go away on their own eventually, so no treatment is usually necessary.
In the case of infantile spasms and epilepsy, treatments may include medicines, a ketogenic diet, or surgery. These options should be discussed with a medical specialist.
Always consult a medical professional before attempting to treat any sleep-related issues.
Ensuring the Best Sleep Possible
As we’ve seen, in rare cases, sleep twitching can indicate a serious issue that requires medical attention. However, a baby twitching in their sleep is usually a normal part of development.
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Here are some more commonly-asked questions about babies twitching in their sleep.
When should I be worried about my baby twitching in their sleep?
Healthline says that if the twitching stops upon waking, it’s likely just sleep myoclonus, which is harmless. However, if your baby is twitching or stiffening upon waking, or if the twitching is excessive, it may be cause for concern. Speak to a doctor to determine if your child has an epileptic disorder, infantile spasms, febrile seizures, benign familial neonatal convulsions, or another serious health issue.
What should I do if I find my baby's body twitching?
A little twitching and small movements for a few seconds are usually normal while a baby sleeps. However, if you suspect your baby has infantile spasms, see your pediatrician as soon as possible. If you notice your baby is having trouble breathing along with twitching symptoms, you should immediately go to the ER or call 999.
What can I do if my baby has been twitching in their sleep a lot?
Twitching for a few seconds here and there is usually a normal sign of development and is not necessarily a sign of bad sleep. However, if you’re worried the twitching movements you’re seeing are excessive, make an appointment with your doctor.
If you want to help your baby sleep better at night, follow a calming bedtime routine, give them a bath, try a white noise machine, use a 4-season baby sleep sack, and follow baby sleep safety practices.
How long will it take for my baby to stop twitching?
When a baby is experiencing occasional normal twitching or benign sleep myoclonus, the twitches may last for just a few seconds. They usually stop when the baby wakes up.
Infantile spasms, which are more serious, may only last a few seconds, but they sometimes happen in clusters. Other types of seizures can last for several minutes.
Again, if you have any concerns about newborn jitters, seek out the help of a medical professional.