You’re lovingly watching your baby peacefully snooze (finally!) when suddenly you notice they’re twitching. You might think that the tiny twitches you see in your baby are a response to a dream. You might worry that they’re some kind of seizure.
But hold on, because researchers now believe that many of those twitches actually contribute to your baby’s motor skills development.
What is this sleep twitching?
While it may not seem like it when you wake up in the middle of the night for the fourth time, babies actually sleep a lot. You can figure on about 14 to 17 hours per 24-hours.
You’ll spend some of that time wishing those hours were consecutive and some of that time just watching your baby sleep. For the pure pleasure of it.
That’s when you’re likely to notice that your baby is twitching in their sleep. Here’s the correct term for the twitches: sleep myoclonus (Thank the Greek language: myo for muscle and clonus for twitching).
Generally, these twitches are perfectly normal. In fact, some researchersTrusted Source now believe that these myoclonic twitches help babies transform their rudimentary movements into coordinated movements.
There are two types of sleep twitches:
- Myoclonic twitches caused by sudden muscle contractions. This is known as positive myoclonus.
- Myoclonic twitches caused by muscle relaxation. This is negative myoclonus.
If you’ve ever been just on the verge of sleep and suddenly felt your body jerk, startling you, you’ve experienced a form of myoclonus — a hypnagogic jerk. Another type of myoclonus you’re likely familiar with? Hiccups.
What causes twitching in sleep?
First a little about the different stages of sleep. There are five different stages of sleep: four stages of NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep and one stage of REM (rapid eye movement).
REM sleep occurs after your body has cycled through the four NREM stages and is the deepest stage of sleep. It’s characterized by rapid eye movements, dreams, and almost complete paralysis of the body. Except for twitches.
Some researchers believe that the twitches during REM sleep are more than just a meaningless spasm or movement related to dreams. They’ve linked these instances of baby twitching in sleep to sensorimotor development.
Meaning, that when your sleeping baby twitches, they’re actually activating circuits in their developing brain. Research on animals suggests that activating these circuits teaches babies’ brains about their limbs and what they can do with them. Think of it as processing sensory input and a mapping of sorts of the sensorimotor system.
Interestingly, studiesTrusted Source with mammals and birds shows that there’s plenty of REM sleep during early development. This has led researchers to think of these twitches as a way of synchronizing developing structures and strengthening neural connections.
A study from 2020 shows that, at all ages, twitching usually occurs in bursts at intervals of 10 seconds or less. As your child develops, you may notice the twitching patterns change.
There may be a link between what is twitching during sleep and what new skills the baby is displaying. For example, you may see neck twitches during sleep in your young baby along with their developing ability to support their heads while awake.
In a few months, your baby starts to reach for things. As expected, this is when increased twitching in the wrists and fingers begins.
When is twitching in sleep a concern?
In some cases Trusted Source, when the twitches were particularly pronounced, parents have taken perfectly healthy infants to the hospital for an evaluation. So how do you know if your baby’s sleep twitches are a normal part of development or signal something that you should be concerned about?
Here’s an easy indicator. If the twitching stops immediately upon waking, it’s likely harmless myoclonic twitches. They won’t continue when the baby isn’t asleep.
If your baby is experiencing twitching movements or stiffening when awake, you may be dealing with a seizure issue such as:
- Infantile spasms. These begin between 2 and 12 months of age. You’ll see a cluster of jerks followed by stiffening.
- Benign familial neonatal convulsions. These start within the first few days of life. They usually stop by 6 to 9 months of age.
- Febrile seizures. These take place during illness, accompanied by a rapid spike in temperature.
- Epilepsy. Epileptic disorders can also cause seizures.
Reach out to your doctor with your concerns if you feel like there is another cause for your baby’s twitches. If you can, get the movements on video so that your provider can see examples during their evaluation.