Parents find joy in watching every movement of their baby — smiling, rolling over, trying to communicate, and even falling asleep. When you think your baby is fast asleep, you may notice them jerk or twitch suddenly. Sleep twitching is the little jerks and spasms that occur in the arms, legs, eyes, eyelids, brow, fingers, toes, head, mouth, and cheeks of the baby during sleep (1). It is a benign condition that involves involuntary muscle movement and happens during the early stages of sleep.
Sometimes referred to as ‘sleep starts’ or ‘sleep myoclonus,’ twitches affect most newborns and babies (2). You may think they are twitching because of a response to a dream, but is there something more to it?
Read this post to know why babies twitch and if it is a normal occurrence.
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).
What Causes Twitching In Sleep?
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, 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).
- 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).
- 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 overruling of various possibilities. Therefore, do not panic if your baby twitches often. Speak to a pediatrician or a neurologist since early diagnosis of any problem could lead to a better prognosis.
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. However, it is recommended to consult a doctor for the right diagnosis and rule out other conditions.
Twitching is usually not a cause of concern and more often related to your baby’s sensorimotor development. Most babies twitch in sleep during infancy. However, if your baby has been experiencing certain seizure-like symptoms recurrently when awake, it is recommended to seek expert advice for the right diagnosis.
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