Baby Twitching In Sleep: Is It Normal, Causes And Concerns

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Any new parent would love to witness all movements of their babies, including smiling, rolling over, communicating, and sleeping. However, as you watch your baby sleep peacefully, you may suddenly notice your baby twitching in sleep sometimes.

Sleep twitching is when your baby has little jerks and spasms during sleep. These spams could occur in the arms, legs, eyes, eyelids, fingers, toes, head, mouth, and cheeks (1). Twitching is a mild condition involving involuntary muscle movement and is usually seen during the early stages of sleep.

Sometimes referred to as ‘sleep starts’ or ‘sleep myoclonus,’ twitches affect most newborns and babies (2). The condition is referred to as benign neonatal sleep myoclonus in medical terms. Most parents and elders think that babies twitch in sleep in response to a dream, but what could be other reasons for it?

In this post, we tell you about how common twitching is in babies and when to be concerned about it.

Is It Normal For Babies To Twitch In Their Sleep?

Twitching or sleep myoclonus is not considered a serious condition in babies. Twitches in babies are most common from birth to three years of age (3). However, in most cases, it resolves on its own between two and six months of age (4). Moreover, it has been reported that this condition has no long or short-term effect on infants and is not associated with any neurodevelopmental abnormality (4).

When the baby is twitching, do not panic but take a video on your mobile phone (or ask someone else nearby to do it). The video will be helpful to your doctor in diagnosing the problem.

What Causes Twitching In Sleep?

Baby twitching in sleep

Image: iStock

The cause of the twitching is still not clear. Interestingly, researchers have observed that twitching can last as long as 10 to 20 seconds (4). Twitching during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep has been linked to sensorimotor development (5).

It is believed that when a baby twitches in sleep, the action activates the circuitry of the developing brain and teaches the babies about their limbs and what they can do with them. Moreover, researchers have uncovered how twitching can be related to the new developing skills of the baby.

For instance, they suggest there may be a link between the babies twitching their neck during sleep and their ability to support their heads while they are awake, or they may twitch their fingers or toes when they are starting to reach for objects (1).

When Is Twitching In Sleep A Concern?

Twitching in sleep is usually harmless. However, the primary difference between night myoclonus and other conditions is that it occurs only in sleep. If you notice twitching or stiffening when your baby is awake or if you have developmental concerns, it may be a cause for concern and require a medical evaluation for the probable presence of the following conditions.

  • Infantile spasm: It is a type of epilepsy and occurs between two to 12 months of age but becomes prominent when the baby is four to eight months old. The seizures usually last one or two seconds but occur in a series every five to ten seconds.  During these infantile spasms, the baby’s body stiffens, while the arms, legs, and head may bend forward, and the back may arch (6).
A baby's body stiffens during an infantile spasm

Image: iStock

  • Benign familial neonatal convulsions: This condition is characterized by recurrent seizures that begin when the newborn is three days old and resolve by the time the baby is one to four months old.  The seizures can involve either one or both sides of the brain and affect the entire body. The signs may include convulsions, muscle rigidity, and loss of consciousness (7).
  • Febrile seizures: These seizures are usually caused by a spike in body temperature or fever along with an infection (cold, flu, or ear infection). Children between the ages of six months and five years may experience febrile seizures. In the majority of the cases, febrile seizures are a form of convulsions. The symptoms may include loss of consciousness, vigorous shaking of arms or legs, rolling of eyes, and rigid limbs (8).
A fever in a baby may cause febrile seizures

Image: iStock

  • Seizures: Abnormal electrical and chemical changes in the brain can lead to seizures. Seizures may lead to a temporary change in consciousness, behavior, sensation, or physical movement. There are various types of seizures, and some signs may include loss of consciousness, convulsion, staring but only for a brief period, confusion, uncontrolled shaking of legs and hand, twitching, flexing, stiffening of the upper body, sudden panic or fear, and nodding (9).
  • Epilepsy: It causes recurrent seizures for known or unknown reasons, depending on the case. Epilepsy often leads to repeated unprovoked seizures unrelated to an acute illness or medical condition, such as brain injury (9).

A conclusive diagnosis of any of these neurological conditions requires multiple medical assessments and ruling out of various possibilities. Therefore, do not panic if your baby twitches often and speak to a pediatrician or a neurologist since early diagnosis of any problem could lead to a better prognosis.

It is important to differentiate benign neonatal sleep myoclonus from seizure disorders as the latter usually need anticonvulsants for management while sleep twitchings are not diminished by anticonvulsant drugs and only diminish with age.

Frequently Asked Questions

1. Is twitching in your sleep a sign of epilepsy?

No, not every shake or jerk is epilepsy. Epilepsy is characterized by recurrent seizures that usually occur due to no apparent reason. The symptoms may also include confusion, staring, loss of consciousness or awareness, vigorous, uncontrollable shaking of limbs, and repetitive movements.

2. Is twitching a sign of seizure?

Suspect a seizure when jerking occurs while the baby is awake, and it lasts more than 10 to 20 seconds. Also the movements that occur in seizures are involuntary and are not associated with voluntary or play movements. However, it is recommended to consult a doctor for the right diagnosis and rule out other conditions.

3. How do I tell if an infant is twitching or seizing?

Twitching during sleep is a reflex and can occur one or few times with no fixed duration. Seizures cause the baby’s body to twitch or stiffen every five to ten seconds, with each episode lasting for a second or two (6).

Your baby twitching in their sleep is not a cause for concern as it is a part of their sensorimotor development. It is most common from infancy to up to three years of age. All signs of twitching are not related to epilepsy. However, consult your pediatrician if you notice signs of seizures, spasms, or convulsions while your baby is asleep. Take proper care of your little one and keep an eye out for concerning symptoms, such as twitching or stiffening when awake, which might signify complications.

Infographic: More On Baby Twitching In Sleep

The sudden jerks your baby experiences during sleep need not necessarily be concerning. Benign sleep myoclonus can be differentiated from other concerning spasms or seizures based on its symptoms and duration. This infographic will help you understand these differentiating factors and initiate precautionary measures to maintain the baby’s safety.

more on baby twitching in sleep [infographic]
Illustration: MomJunction Design Team

Key Pointers

  • Twitching in sleep is normal in babies, and it usually disappears within a few months.
  • The exact cause of twitching during sleep is not clear. It can be due to sensorimotor development in babies.
  • Some babies can have infantile spasms and seizures, and you may look for the signs and seek medical care if you are uncertain whether they have twitching or seizures.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. Sara Diedrich, What’s going on when babies twitch in their sleep?; University of Iowa
2. Children’s sleep: 20 frequently asked questions; Raising Children Network (Australia)
3. Joseph Egger et al., Benign sleep myoclonus in infancy mistaken for epilepsy: BMJ; NCBI
4. BM John and SK Patnaik, Benign Neonatal Sleep Myoclonus: Is it so Uncommon?; Medical Journal Armed Forces; NCBI
5. Mark S. Blumberg, Hugo Gravato Marques, and Fumiya Lida, Twitching in sensorimotor development from sleeping rats to robots: Current Biology
6. Infantile Spasms: Symptoms, Causes & Treatment; American Academy of Pediatrics
7. Benign familial neonatal seizures; U.S. National Library of Medicine
8. Febrile seizures fact sheet: National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke
9. Seizures and epilepsy in children; American Academy of Pediatrics
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Swati Patwal

Swati Patwal is a clinical nutritionist, a Certified Diabetes Educator (CDE) and a toddler mom with over eight years of experience in diverse fields of nutrition. She started her career as a CSR project coordinator for a healthy eating and active lifestyle project catering to school children. Then she worked as a nutrition faculty and clinical nutrition coach in different...
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Dr. Pooja Parikh

(MBBS, DCH, DNB)
Dr. Pooja Parikh is a pediatrician whose medical journey has taken her from Rajkot (PDUMC) to Vadodara (SSGH) to Mumbai (Hinduja & Breachcandy Hospital). Currently she is actively involved in critical, intensive and general care of 0 to 18-year-olds in the port town of Gandhidham, where she was born and brought up. She believes that a doctor should be involved...
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